American officials also do not have high confidence that the military could find and destroy North Korea’s entire arsenal of long-range missiles and nuclear warheads. It would then be up to American missile defenses to knock out any that survived and that North Korea might use to attack the United States or its allies.
Even a limited strike — on, say, a North Korean missile on its launching pad or a missile in midair — would pose risks that the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, might retaliate, setting off a spiral of escalation that could plunge the Korean Peninsula into war.
Mr. Mattis would not say how the United States might bypass that risk while exercising military options. “I won’t go into detail,” he told reporters at the Pentagon during an unannounced news conference on Monday. He also declined to say specifically whether those options would be “kinetic” — military-speak for lethal force like bombings, airstrikes or ground combat.
Military experts said options that might not prompt immediate retaliation against Seoul could include cyberwarfare or even an assassination attempt on Mr. Kim — though such an attempt would have to be successful. Other potential options are a naval blockade of North Korea, or a deployment of additional troops to the region.
But signs that the United States is actually preparing a military option in North Korea — like a repositioning of military assets or an evacuation of American citizens in the region — have not appeared so far.
Mr. Mattis also said that he believed that North Korea, which most recently launched two missiles that flew over Japan, was deliberately carrying out tests that came as close as possible to provoking the United States, without eliciting a military response.
His comments come as the Trump administration has struck increasingly bellicose tone toward Pyongyang in the face of a sharply accelerated pace of missile tests from North Korea.
But on Monday, Mr. Mattis said he believed that diplomacy and sanctions were managing to put pressure on Pyongyang, which he said was finding itself increasingly isolated. Mr. Mattis cited as proof a recent decision by the Mexican government to declare the North Korea ambassador there “persona non grata” — a move which essentially expelled him from the country.
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