The United States doesn't have a "bloody nose" strategy for North Korea, senators of both parties and a Trump administration official said Thursday, rejecting claims the U.S. wants to strike the North's nuclear program in a way that avoids an all-out war.
The harmonized message could quell speculation that President Donald Trump is contemplating limited military action to demonstrate U.S. resolve toward North Korea without provoking a wider conflict. Such a strategy would be widely seen as dangerous given the North's capability to inflict a devastating retaliation on U.S. ally South Korea.
A senior White House official, at a briefing Wednesday, told lawmakers that no such approach has been adopted, Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and James Risch, R-Idaho, said at a Senate hearing on Thursday. An administration official who was testifying confirmed their accounts.
The White House had "made it very clear there is no bloody nose strategy for a strike against North Korea," Shaheen told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which was considering the nomination of Susan Thornton, Trump's choice to be the top diplomat for East Asia.
"We were told clearly by administration people about as high up as it gets that there is no such thing as a 'bloody nose' strategy, that they've never talked about, they've never considered it, they've never used that term, and it's not something that that people ought to be talking about," Risch said.
Thornton confirmed the administration's policy remains one of "maximum pressure" through economic sanctions to get North Korea to negotiate on eliminating up its nuclear weapons. At the same time, the U.S. is keeping military options on the table.
"Our preference is to achieve denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula through a diplomatic settlement, but we will reach this goal one way or another," she said.
Trump has pledged to prevent North Korea from perfecting a nuclear-tipped, long-range missile that could strike the U.S. mainland. The North's rapid tempo of weapons tests in the past year has led the CIA director to say the country may only be months away from the target.
The "bloody nose" moniker emerged in December, when a British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, cited unnamed sources saying the White House had "dramatically" stepped up preparation for a military solution because diplomacy was not working.
Victor Cha, a Washington-based Korea expert who had long been regarded as Trump's choice to become U.S. ambassador to South Korea, referred to it in a commentary two weeks ago and said some administration officials were considering preventive military action against North Korea.
Cha warned of thousands of Americans being put at risk in South Korea and the start a nuclear war. It wasn't clear whether Cha was passed over as ambassador because of policy differences with the White House or problems with his security clearance.
U.S. intelligence officials this week assessed the risk of conflict with North Korea as higher today than at any time since the end of the Cold War. Their wide-ranging intelligence report also predicted North Korea will conduct more missile tests this year and refuse to negotiate away its nuclear capabilities.
Tensions have eased somewhat on the divided Korean Peninsula in recent weeks as the two Koreas forged a diplomatic opening inspired by their joint participation in the Winter Olympics, now taking place in South Korea. The U.S. has signaled openness to talks with North Korea but remains wary of its intentions. The North hasn't said it's willing to engage Washington.
"There will not be any letup on pressure," Thornton told lawmakers. "We are leaving the door open to engagement ... and we want that engagement to consist of one issue, which is denuclearization."