General Dunford also said there were no plans to cancel American military exercises with South Korea scheduled to start Monday — drills that North Korea could interpret as a new provocation. He called the exercises “very important to maintaining the ability of the alliance to defend itself.”
Later in the day, after a meeting in Washington with Japan’s defense and foreign ministers that was aimed partly at reassuring them, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson expressed support for General Dunford’s statements.
“Our approach has been endorsed by the president,” Mr. Tillerson told reporters.
He said the United States and its allies would further intensify economic and diplomatic pressures on North Korea, and he praised China for its increased cooperation in those efforts.
Mr. Tillerson said he had read Mr. Bannon’s remarks, but declined to respond directly to them. However, he said the diplomatic campaign against North Korea must be backed by the threat of “a strong military consequence if North Korea chooses wrongly.”
The deal Mr. Bannon suggested, however unlikely, would be a stunning departure from decades of United States policy. Its mere mention astonished analysts in a region still grappling with the implications of Mr. Trump’s impromptu tirade against North Korea last week.
The conflicting statements compounded confusion at a time when America’s allies in East Asia are already nervous about its commitment to defend them, should Pyongyang acquire the ability to strike United States cities with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles.
In his meetings in Beijing, General Dunford has been trying to persuade the Chinese leadership, including President Xi Jinping, to get tough on North Korea.
“We have a long-term alliance commitment with South Korea,” General Dunford said.
Referring to Mr. Bannon’s quoted remarks, he said: “I’ve not been involved in any discussions associated with reducing or removing our presence in South Korea. If that was said, I don’t know about it.”
President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, continuing to try to assure his public over Washington’s strategy, said on Thursday that Mr. Trump had agreed to seek his consent before taking any military action against North Korea.
Mr. Moon also sought to dispel fears about the possibility that the United States might carry out a unilateral military strike against the North that could lead to full-out war on the Korean Peninsula.
“No matter what options the United States and President Trump want to use, they have promised to have full consultation with South Korea and get our consent in advance,” Mr. Moon said in a nationally televised news conference. “This is a firm agreement between South Korea and the United States. The people can be assured that there will be no war.”
He said he thought Mr. Trump’s combative recent statements had been meant to “demonstrate his resolve and put pressure on North Korea.”
“I don’t think he necessarily made them with an intent to realize a military action,” said Mr. Moon, whose office said that it remained in contact with the White House, including a phone call between the leaders last week. “On this, there is sufficient communication and agreement being made between South Korea and the United States.”
In his interview with the magazine The American Prospect Mr. Bannon said the fact that Seoul, South Korea’s capital, lies in range of the North’s conventional weapons ruled out a military solution.
“Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that 10 million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us,” Mr. Bannon was quoted as saying.
Mr. Bannon said the North Korea issue was a “sideshow” to what he called America’s “economic war with China,” the North’s sole major ally. He said the United States should stop hoping that Beijing would use its influence to rein in Pyongyang, and should instead proceed with tough trade sanctions against China.
Mr. Bannon’s statements are not likely to shift American policy. He no longer has a seat on the National Security Council, and has not been actively involved in North Korea policy, according to several officials. Mr. Bannon cares about North Korea, these officials said, to the extent that he views it as distracting from his effort to prosecute a trade campaign against China.
Mr. Trump has soft-pedaled his economic rhetoric against China in order to enlist its support in curbing the North Korean regime. Mr. Bannon has told colleagues that he believes China is manipulating the United States by stringing it along on North Korea. He is pushing the president to move ahead on trade cases, including China’s alleged theft of technology from American companies.
Mr. Trump is said to have been considering firing Mr. Bannon. It remains unclear what influence the strategist’s ideas about North Korea might have in Mr. Trump’s administration. But analysts in East Asia were astonished that Mr. Bannon would suggest pulling all United States troops from South Korea.
“The idea that anyone in the White House would even consider withdrawing U.S. forces defending South Korea if North Korea would only agree to a verifiable freeze on its current arsenal of an estimated 60 nuclear warheads is stunning,” said David Straub, a former American diplomat who is now a fellow at the Sejong Institute, a think tank near Seoul.
“It would be pre-emptive surrender to a regime whose ultimate aim is to unify the Korean Peninsula on its own terms,” he added.
A withdrawal of all 28,500 of the American troops based in South Korea would be far more than North Korea itself has demanded in return for suspending its nuclear and missile tests. Pyongyang wants the United States to halt joint military exercises with South Korea, and Washington has rejected that idea out of hand.
In South Korea, a full American withdrawal is widely seen as possible only after North Korea is denuclearized and a peace treaty formally ending the 1950-53 Korean War is signed. Even then, many in South Korea argue that the United States military should stay.
Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior research fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Tokyo, dismissed Mr. Bannon as an “amateur” and said his idea “doesn’t make sense for anybody who is seriously watching the military balance in the world.” If the United States withdrew its troops, he said, “Japan would face a direct potential threat from the peninsula, and it may consider its own military options, including nuclear arms.”
Chinese commentators noted that a full American withdrawal would be in line with China’s long-term goals, but said the idea would go nowhere politically. “I think it is bold, innovative but unrealistic,” said Zhang Baohui, a professor of international relations at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.
“In reality, this may be the type of bargain that could break the quagmire over the North Korean nuclear issue,” Professor Zhang said. “Only someone like Bannon could entertain such bold initiatives. However, they will be pushed back by the establishment types within the administration and by congressional hawks.”
General Dunford said he had told Chinese officials that while the United States favored a peaceful outcome to the standoff with Pyongyang, “we are also being prudent in preparing military options.” He added, “So we think it’s better to talk about those military options in advance.”
The general, who met with President Xi on Thursday, said he was eager to improve communications between the American and Chinese militaries, to reduce the risk of miscalculation. The two sides signed an agreement calling for periodic talks between their top generals.
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