Top US General jets into Asia as N. Korea tensions run high

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TOKYO/SEOUL — General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, will meet with President Moon Jae-in in Seoul on Monday amid escalating tensions over North Korea’s nuclear program, according to an official with South Korea’s Blue House.

The chairman of Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, the deputy commander of R.O.K-US Combined Forces Command and the head of Korea’s national security council will also attend, said the official, who asked not to be identified. Mr. Dunford, whose trip includes stops in Japan and China, arrived in Seoul on Sunday, the official said.

The visit to the region by President Donald J. Trump’s top military adviser underlines heightened tensions after a week in which North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un and the US leader exchanged threats. China’s President Xi Jinping told Mr. Trump in a phone call that all sides should maintain restraint and avoid inflammatory comments.

The Trump-Xi phone call came as Japan set up a missile-defense system in western areas of the country, following a threat by North Korea to fire missiles over Japan toward the US territory of Guam. The deployment of four Patriot interceptors was expected to be completed Saturday, a spokesman for Japan’s Ministry of Defense said by phone. He asked not to be named.

Mr. Trump said in a tweet Friday that US military options were “locked and loaded” if North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un acted unwisely.

China is North Korea’s main benefactor, providing most of its food and fuel. Beijing is reluctant to put so much pressure on the regime that it risks collapse. While North Korea is testing the patience of its longtime benefactor, such a scenario could lead to a unified Korea and push US troops right up to China’s border.

China agreed to harsh United Nations sanctions earlier this month even while calling on all sides to take a step back and negotiate a solution. Formal talks on North Korea’s nuclear program collapsed in 2009, and Mr. Kim has accelerated his efforts to obtain the ability to strike the US with a nuclear weapon.

Mr. Dunford said last month that it was “unimaginable” to allow North Korea to develop the capability to strike a US city with a nuclear weapon. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican, told NBC News that Mr. Trump told him that “if thousands die, they’re going to die over there.”

The White House said that Messrs. Trump and Xi agreed during their call that North Korea must stop provocative behavior, reiterating their mutual commitment to rid the Korean peninsula of nuclear weapons. It also said that Mr. Trump looked forward to visiting China later this year, calling the relationship between the two leaders “extremely close.”

The warm words exchanged between Messrs. Xi and Trump Friday night in the US masked underlying tensions between Beijing and Washington over how to deal with the errant regime in Pyongyang. Mr. Trump has often used sharp words to argue that China isn’t doing enough to rein in North Korea, and has threatened punitive measures on trade if Mr. Xi fails to act.

The European Union’s Political and Security Committee will meet Monday in an extraordinary session called by foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini to discuss “possible next steps” on North Korea, according to an e-mailed statement.

Mr. Trump has stepped up warnings that Mr. Kim’s regime would face a devastating military strike if it continued threatening the US.

On Friday, he said that if Mr. Kim makes any “overt threat” or strike at a US territory or ally “he will truly regret it and he will regret it fast.” Mr. Trump also said the US was considering tighter sanctions against North Korea.

“Hopefully it will all work out,” he told reporters in Bedminster, New Jersey. “Nobody loves a peaceful solution better than President Trump.”

North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency accused Mr. Trump earlier of moving the Korean Peninsula “to the brink of a nuclear war.” The US hasn’t taken any public steps to prepare for hostilities such as evacuating Americans from Seoul, which is within range of North Korean artillery, or moving ships, aircraft or troops into position for an imminent response.

Terence Roehrig, a national security affairs professor at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, said Mr. Trump’s posture suggested he was trying to dissuade Kim from further provocations rather than setting the stage for a US military strike.

“The president’s rhetoric could be aimed at China, but largely it is aimed at North Korea, trying to deter,” Mr. Roehrig said. “North Koreans are not suicidal. They may continue launching missile tests but they don’t want a war, and the US doesn’t want military action either. ” — Bloomberg