North Korea Closely Watched as Key Anniversary Marked; Mattis Says Duty of US Army to ‘Stand Ready’

By Patrick Goodenough | October 9, 2017 | 8:37 PM EDT

Kim Jong-un addresses a gathering of his ruling Workers’ Party of Korea ahead of Tuesday’s founding anniversary. (Photo: Uriminzokkiri)

( – The U.S. and its allies in north-east Asia are keeping a close eye on North Korea on Tuesday, in case the Stalinist regime marks an important anniversary with a new nuclear, missile or military provocation.

The ruling Workers’ Party of Korea’s founding day is being celebrated in Pyongyang at a time of growing concern that tensions on the peninsula could spark a conflict. The regime in previous years has marked October 10 with shows of military might, and its first-ever nuclear test occurred on the eve of the holiday in 2006.

A South Korean military official told Seoul’s Yonhap news agency that the allies have a broad range of surveillance assets in play including reconnaissance aircraft, land-based radar, and a warship equipped with Aegis missile defense systems.

The official said no signs of provocations have yet been detected.

Kim Jong-un has in recent months stepped up threats to target the U.S. and its South Korean and Japanese allies with ballistic missiles, and to shoot down U.S. aircraft should they approach North Korean territory – as U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancers did in a patrol off the country’s east coast late last month.

The regime also warned it may carry out a nuclear test in the Pacific. The six it has conducted so far, between 2006 and last month, were all underground tests within its own borders.

President Trump’s statements and tweets are also being closely watched in the region, as the president reiterates his view that decades of U.S. policy on North Korea has been a failure.

A presidential tweet Monday saying U.S. policies over 25 years “didn’t work” followed a similar message over the weekend, which ended, “Sorry, but only one thing will work!”

Asked to clarify what Trump meant by “one thing,” White House Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney told NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday, “I think what the president is clearly telegraphing – and this should not be news to anybody – is that military options are on the table with North Korea. They absolutely are.”

Defense Secretary James Mattis on Monday described the current approach to North Korea as “a diplomatically-led, economic sanction-buttressed effort to try to turn North Korea off this path.”

As that diplomatically-led effort continues, he said during an Association of the U.S. Army convention in Washington, it is the duty of the U.S. Army to “stand ready.”

“What does the future hold?” Mattis asked. “Neither you nor I can say. So there’s one thing the U.S. Army can do, and that is, you have got to be ready to ensure that we have military options that our president can employ, if needed.”

In his remarks to the convention the retired Marine Corps general also observed that “the international situation is the most complex and demanding that I have seen in all my years of service – and that’s over four decades.”

Since late August North Korea has twice fired ballistic missiles over Japan, another frequent target of Pyongyang’s belligerent rhetoric.

Growing concerns about the threat prompted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe late last month to dissolve parliament and call a snap election for Oct. 22.

In a weekend election debate he justified the controversial decision by saying he needs a strong mandate in support of his policy of applying maximum pressure on North Korea.

A new poll shows relatively strong support among candidates in the upcoming Japanese election for military action against North Korea if the nuclear and missile crises cannot be resolved peacefully – including from 40 percent of candidates from Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow