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Trump's tweet on N Korea may not translate into a war cry

Secretary of Defense James Mattis continued with a previously scheduled trip on the West Coast

Nafeesa Syeed & Bill Faries | Bloomberg 

Donald Trump, Shinzo Abe
A file photo of US President Donald Trump with South Korean President Moon Jae-In (left) and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Japan is home to six US navy vessels and the US Army’s Second Infantry Division is based in South Korea

President warns the US is “locked and loaded,” while Kim Jong Un’s regime says it could launch missiles toward in the as soon as next week. Behind the scenes, however, it’s not clear that a major military confrontation is imminent. Trump’s sharp rhetoric is belied by the business-as-usual routines of the US Defense Department, which has been on stand-by for a belligerent act from North Korea for decades.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis continued with a previously scheduled trip on the West Coast. Speaking to reporters in California on Thursday, he said that while it’s his job to be ready with military options, the US is pursuing diplomacy. He praised last weekend’s unanimous United Nations resolution tightening sanctions on North Korea and said the US “is gaining diplomatic results, and I want to stay right there, right now.” A back-channel used earlier this year to try to free an American held by Pyongyang is still active, according to the Associated Press.

Trump himself has sent some conflicting signals about what would trigger a US military response. He suggested Friday morning that the US isn’t looking to make a pre-emptive strike, saying on Twitter that the military stood ready to act “should North Korea act unwisely”.
The US military says it is always prepared for conflict on a moment’s notice. The motto of US Army’s Second Infantry Division, based in South Korea, is “ready to fight tonight”. “There’s always some degree of readiness, but in the face of these indications and warnings that North Korea is communicating deliberately, we’re going to no doubt have an even higher condition of readiness,” said Thomas Karako, a senior fellow at Center for Strategic and Studies in Washington.
For military analysts, there are several indicators to determine whether hostilities could be around the corner.
Ship deployments
The USS Ronald Reagan, an aircraft carrier with more than 5,000 sailors that departed from its home port in Japan in May, actually returned to port this week “after a scheduled patrol to protect and defend the collective maritime interests of the US and its allies and partners in the Indo-Asia-region,” according to ship’s Facebook page.
The Reagan had done exercises earlier this year with the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier, which Trump briefly deployed to Korean waters when tensions with Pyongyang ratcheted up earlier this year. The Vinson, however, is now back in San Diego after a training exercise off the California coast.
Japan is home to as many as six US Navy vessels capable of defending against ballistic missiles. They are normally based at Yokosuka, on the eastern side of Japan. Just moving those ships toward the Korean peninsula would signal potential action to stop a missile launch is more imminent and would likely be seen as an urgent threat by Pyongyang.
Aircraft deployments
Trump on Friday tweeted out a series of photos of long-range B-1B bombers at Andersen Air Force base in Guam, which North Korea has directly threatened. The bombers have long been a key tool in the US arsenal for any renewed conflict in Korea, replacing B-52 stratofortress bombers used in earlier decades.
“More aircraft deployments, particularly bombers to Andersen in Guam and perhaps Hickam in Hawaii” would be sign conflict is coming, said Rob Levinson, senior defense analyst with Bloomberg Government. The US also maintains jet fighters, including dozens of F-16s, at locations on the Korean peninsula, such as Kunsan Air Base on the country’s west coast, in addition to more than a hundred South Korean jets.
Personnel departures
Preparations for conflict would also likely involve the departure, on a voluntary or mandatory basis, of family members of US military and diplomatic personnel. Such a move would send a clear signal that the US sees widespread conflict on the horizon, particularly because Seoul, the nation’s capital and most populous city, is just 35 miles south of the border separating the two countries.
“The canary in the coal mine for this is the surreptitious or overt evacuation of American military family members,” said Retired Army Major General Robert Scales, who commanded units in Korea and is the author of “Scales on War: The Future of America’s Military at Risk.” If that happens, “that tells you that things are getting bad,” he added in an interview.
On the North Korea side, if war were imminent, the government would probably undertake civil defense exercises, including rehearsing measures to open up underground tunnels and get Pyongyang’s elite to safer havens, as well as ramped-up, live-fire military drills, Scales said. The evacuation drills haven’t been seen in more than five years, he said.      
Xi Jinping seeks to calm North Korea tensions over a phone call with Trump
China’s President Xi Jinping moved to calm growing tensions over North Korea, telling US leader in a phone call that all sides should maintain restraint and avoid inflammatory comments.

Xi’s comments, reported by China’s CCTV, came shortly after Trump added to his recent aggressive tweets by saying that US military options were “locked and loaded” if North Korean leader acted unwisely. China is North Korea’s main benefactor, providing most of its food and fuel.

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

The warm words exchanged Friday night in the US masked underlying tensions between Beijing and Washington over how to deal with the errant regime in Pyongyang. 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 Xi fails to act.