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(Yonhap Interview) U.S. Navy chief says military options on N. Korea are real

2017/12/15 12:00

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By Lee Chi-dong

SEOUL, Dec. 15 (Yonhap) -- The highest-ranking U.S. naval officer stressed Friday that the Pentagon is quite serious about having military options on North Korea steady and ready as a plan B, while Washington is still focusing on diplomacy.

"It's not empty words," Adm. John M. Richardson, chief of naval operations (CNO), said in an exclusive interview with Yonhap News Agency at the U.S. military base in Yongsan, central Seoul. "To have a legitimate deterrence, I think, you have to have legitimate, I guess, options. So we're prepared."

   His remarks came amid mixed or confusing signals from Washington on its approach toward Pyongyang in the wake of its "successful" launch of a brand-new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) known as the Hwasong-15.

This week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made a surprise proposal for unconditional dialogue with the North. But the White House was quick in dismissing the view that it has lowered the bar.

Asked about the mood at the Pentagon, the admiral cited a clear consensus that the North's threat and capability for provocations have been growing.

Adm. John M. Richardson (C), U.S. chief of naval operations, speaks during an interview with Yonhap News Agency at the Yongsan military base in Seoul in this photo provided by the U.S. Navy. Rear Adm. Brad Cooper (R), commander of the U.S. Naval Forces Korea, sits next to him.(Yonhap) Adm. John M. Richardson (C), U.S. chief of naval operations, speaks during an interview with Yonhap News Agency at the Yongsan military base in Seoul in this photo provided by the U.S. Navy. Rear Adm. Brad Cooper (R), commander of the U.S. Naval Forces Korea, sits next to him.(Yonhap)

Another thing for sure is that the U.S. remains committed to its "rock solid and steadfast" alliance with the diplomacy lead.

"But we in the military understand that we have to be prepared for any kind of increasing capability that could come from the North, that would threaten us from the North, so that we could prevail and that we provide a firm backstop to the diplomatic and economic efforts that are going on the lead," he said.

He was responding to a question about whether Pentagon officials have actually discussed viable military means against the North.

On the possibility of the allies putting off their annual joint military drills -- Key Resolve and Foal Eagle -- until the end of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic and Paralympic games, Richardson said no final decision has been made yet.

The South's left-leaning government is reportedly seeking to avoid the overlap between the sports event and the military maneuver that the North has labeled a rehearsal for invasion.

He added his troops will be responsive and adaptable on the basis of the naval forces' flexibility.

"Just going back to the sort of the fundamental things is the commitment to the alliance and the commitment to one another that is the thing that won't change," he said. "And so we will find a way to make sure that next year we remain committed."

   The CNO was speaking after a series of meetings with Gen. Brooks, the commander of the U.S. Forces Korea; Gen. Jeong Kyeong-doo, chairman of South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Adm. Um Hyun-seong, who leads the nation's Navy, in his first visit here in two years.

Adm. John M. Richardson (L), U.S. chief of naval operations, shakes hands with his South Korean counterpart Adm. Um Hyun-seong at a Seoul meeting on Dec. 15, 2017, in this photo released by Um's office. (Yonhap) Adm. John M. Richardson (L), U.S. chief of naval operations, shakes hands with his South Korean counterpart Adm. Um Hyun-seong at a Seoul meeting on Dec. 15, 2017, in this photo released by Um's office. (Yonhap)

Richardson, a former director of the U.S. naval nuclear propulsion program, advised South Korea to carefully review the cost of acquiring a nuclear-powered submarine if it wants to do so.

On his campaign trail, President Moon Jae-in raised the need for the South to have its own nuclear-powered sub to help beef up the country's defense capabilities.

A feasibility study is under way at both the Navy and the Ministry of National Defense.

"I can say from experience that a nuclear Navy requires a significant investment and initial investment and continued investment in things like manpower, industry, safety," he said. "And so as any nation goes through the strategic calculus as to whether to develop a nuclear powered warship, whether it's a submarine or whatever, all of that has to be appreciated in the balance. So there's this cost benefit calculus that has to occur. And this is the challenge that really only the Republic of Korea can answer for itself."

   He also emphasized that Asia remains a top priority for U.S. diplomacy and trade, regardless of terms used by political leaders.

President Donald Trump has advocated the "Indo-Pacific" policy to replace Barack Obama's Asia pivot.

"It's just a booming part of world. And so I think it's an undeniable reality that it's gonna remain a very important theater," he pointed out, adding the U.S. stays on track to deploy 60 percent of its naval assets to the Pacific by 2020.

He was guarded about the specific future operation of high-profile naval assets in the region.

Many expect the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group to be deployed to the Western Pacific early next year to join the USS Ronald Reagan battle team for a dual-carrier operation.

"Here I am as the chief of the Navy, trying to inject some randomness and unpredictability into the operational cycle. I lose some of that if I put it in the paper," he quipped.

He said it's also too early to start talking about the mission of Zumwalt-class stealth destroyers, technically still in the development process, despite some speculation that the U.S. may base one of those at the Jeju Naval Base in South Korea.

Concluding the interview, he did not forget a pep talk for Rear Adm. Brad Cooper, commander of the U.S. Naval Forces Korea, who sat next to him for some additional explanations throughout the interview.

Cooper is being reassigned to an operational command in Japan next month after 1 1/2 years of service in South Korea.

"He's done a tremendous amount for U.S. sailors here and their families, done a tremendous amount for bringing our alliance together," Richardson said.

Cooper will be replaced by Rear Adm. Michael Boyle, director for international engagement for the CNO office.

lcd@yna.co.kr

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