Attempts by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to ease the concerns of North Korean leadership may have backfired spectacularly on Thursday, when a high-ranking military commander refused to rule out the possibility of the US toppling Pyongyang “for the heck of it.”
Adm. Harry Harris, head of Pacific Command, appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee to brief lawmakers about the simmering conflict on the Korean peninsula — tensions that could ratchet up following the unsettling exchange between the admiral and Sen. Graham.
Characterizing Kim Jong Un’s dash to a deliverable nuclear weapon as an “insurance policy” against perceived US aggression, Sen. Graham tried to assure the North Korean government that they’re mistaken, and that the US isn’t interested in regime change.
“Is it fair to say, we do not have any intention of invading North Korea at all?” Graham asked Adm. Harris. “Nobody has told you get ready to invade North Korea.”
“That is not fair to say, sir,” Harris countered. “I believe the President has said that all options are on the table.”
“Yeah, but I mean we’re not just going to go in and take North Korea down for the heck of it,” Graham responded, trying again to get the Admiral to dispel the notion of US aggression.
Harris persisted, replying: “I don’t want to get into what we could or couldn’t do.”
“Well North Korea thinks we’re going to invade at any moment,” Graham pushed on. “Do you think that’s part of our national security strategy—without provocation to attack North Korea?”
“I think North Korea has provided provocation already,” Harris said.
Despite the exchange, Graham concluded his questioning with a message to Pyongyang: “In case North Korea is listening, none of us want to invade your country.”
The senator’s overtures, however, weren’t just undermined by US Pacific Command, but also by his own prior words. A day earlier, during an interview with NBC, Graham defended the idea of a preemptive strike on North Korea.
“It’d be terrible, but the war would be over there, it wouldn’t be here,” Graham said. “It would be the end of North Korea, but what it would not do is hit America.”
On Wednesday, the entire US Senate was invited to the White House for a rare briefing on the North Korea situation. Most lawmakers emerged from the meeting confused about its purpose.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) told CNN that he “learned nothing new” at the gathering. “I’m not quite sure why we went all the way down to the White House,” he said.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the briefing, “okay.” When asked if it was “worthwhile,” Corker said: “I’m not sure.”
During Thursday’s hearing, Adm. Harris told lawmakers that a newly-deployed missile defense system in South Korea would be “operational in the coming days.”
The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system was installed over the objections of Russia and China, who are concerned about the radar system’s wide reach.
North Korean state news, meanwhile, reported that there was a massive military drill ongoing Wednesday, featuring a live-fire artillery barrage. The drill was held to commemorate the 85th anniversary of the North Korean army’s creation.
US and South Korean military units have also been conducting joint drills of their own.