WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is leaving it to other U.S. officials to respond publicly to North Korea’s hostile rhetoric, as his administration balances a display of military resolve against the risk that its actions will escalate tensions with dictator Kim Jong Un.
Even as North Korea threatens to wage nuclear war on the United States and South Korea, the White House so far has kept American reaction below the presidential level, with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry taking the lead. Obama hasn’t commented in public on the crisis this week, and he declined to answer a question on North Korea shouted by a reporter after an April 2 Oval Office meeting.
At the same time, the administration has sought to reassure South Korea that the United States would come to its defense.
The U.S. sent B-52 and B-2 bombers to participate in annual U.S.-South Korea military exercises — with the Pentagon announcing the moves even while calling them routine — and deployed two Navy destroyers to the region in gestures to deter a North Korean military provocation.
The U.S. is striking the right balance in responding with rhetorical restraint while showing resolve, said Mark Minton, who was deputy chief of mission at the American embassy in Seoul from 2003 to 2006.
“We’ve done pretty well in walking that middle ground,” Minton, president of the Korea Society, a nonprofit New York- based group, said in an interview. “We have not engaged in overheated rhetoric ourselves. We have taken some quiet, discreet moves that are easily reversible.”
Kim’s regime warned this week that “the moment of explosion is approaching soon” and said it’s poised to conduct a “smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear strike.” North Korea also has moved a missile to its eastern coast rocket launch site, possibly for test-firing, according to South Korea’s defense minister.
North Korea was seen loading two mid-range missiles onto mobile launchers and hiding them in a facility near the east coast, Yonhap reported today, citing unidentified South Korean military sources. Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok declined to confirm or comment on reports of a second missile.
North Korea has in the past sought to mask its intentions and deceive surveillance tools by steps such as displaying dummy missiles and covering test sites.
While North Korea has intensified its threats, the U.S. and South Korea have said they’ve seen no unusual military movements suggesting preparations for war. North Korea is incapable of hitting the U.S. with a nuclear missile, and its chances of winning a second war with South Korea and the U.S. are poor, according to Joseph Bermudez, a military analyst who has studied North Korea’s strengths and weaknesses.
Donald Gregg, a former CIA official who was ambassador to South Korea for President George H.W. Bush, said that some show of deterrent force was justified, although sending stealthy, nuclear-capable B-2s was “maybe overkill.”
“We had to demonstrate we were responding seriously to this wild bluster coming out of North Korea,” Gregg said in an interview. “But at some point, we have to figure out a way to start talking.”
Tensions on the Korean peninsula have been reflected in financial markets, as South Korea’s Kospi index fell 1.6 percent today to 1,927.23 in Seoul, its steepest loss since Oct. 26. The won dropped 0.7 percent to 1,131.69 per dollar, the weakest since Sept. 6. The currency slumped 6 percent in the past three months, Asia’s second-worst performer.
Joel Wit, a former diplomat who was involved in denuclearization talks with North Korea in the 1990s, said the U.S. has made its point and may be able to dial back military moves to avoid provoking Kim and to provide an opening for him to reduce tensions.
“It’s a very difficult balancing act to get right,” said Wit, a visiting fellow at the U.S.-Korea Institute in Washington who runs the “38 North” website that reports on North Korea developments. “I think we’re verging on too strong a response.”
Obama has been “regularly updated” on the crisis, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday.
“We are obviously consulting regularly with our allies in Seoul and Tokyo, as well as other allies and partners,” Carney told reporters as the president returned from a two-day trip to California.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that there’s an opportunity for Kim’s regime to de-escalate.
“We have also been saying all the way through that this does not need to get hotter,” she told reporters Thursday. “We can change course here if” North Korea halts its nuclear and missile tests as required by its international obligations.
For now, Kim doesn’t seem to be moving that way. South Korea Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin told reporters in Seoul Thursday that North Korea may be preparing a medium-range Musudan ballistic missile — which may be capable of reaching Japan — for a test launch.
A test may be timed to mark April 15, when North Korea commemorates the birthday of Kim Il Sung, the current leader’s grandfather and the nation’s founder. A year ago, North Korea used the April 15 parade to display for the first time what U.S. intelligence agencies said “appears” to be a new long-range road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile.
“They are setting up for their end game — a missile test and then the propaganda narrative that they have caused the U.S. to back down because of the North’s superior military capabilities and that it’s a nuclear power,” David Maxwell, associate director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, said in an email.
A Musudan launch would defy the United Nations Security Council and the U.S., which has said a missile test would prompt efforts to place further UN penalties on North Korea, already under sanctions for previous missile and nuclear tests. After the Security Council imposed additional sanctions last month in response to a third nuclear test, Kim’s regime responded by cutting a hotline with South Korea and threatening a preemptive nuclear strike.
Kerry is due in the region next week for talks with leaders in Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo. The U.S. supports South Korea with about 28,500 troops stationed in the country plus a force that includes about 38,000 U.S. military personnel in Japan, a major air base in Guam, and global strike capabilities with air- and sea-launched ballistic missiles and cruise missiles carried on aircraft, surface ships and submarines.
The U.S. is looking for China, North Korea’s largest trade partner, to use its leverage to persuade Kim to back down. China, having failed to get Kim to call off his last nuclear test, voted in favor of UN sanctions last month, and the U.S. wants the government in Beijing to do so again if North Korea tests another missile or nuclear device.
North Korea “has been the subject of intense conversations between the secretary and his Chinese counterparts,” Nuland said.
“It’ll be a central focus of the secretary’s diplomacy when he’s in Beijing to see what more we can do to get the attention of the leadership in the DPRK and get them to change course,’ she said. DPRK refers to the country’s official name, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Speaking at an event in Seoul March 26, former Secretary of State Colin Powell played down the likelihood of war breaking out on the Korean peninsula.
‘‘I do not see the prospect of conflict as some of my friends in the United States do,” he said. “They bluster, they threaten, they say things they cannot do.”