Flashpoints

Here’s what PACAF’s commander thinks N. Korea’s ‘Christmas gift’ to US will be

Pacific Air Forces Commander Gen. Charles Brown predicts North Korea will conduct a long-range ballistic missile test in the coming weeks — comments that come after North Korea has warned it would send a “Christmas gift” to the U.S.

“What I would expect is some kind of long-range ballistic missile would be the gift,” Brown told reporters Tuesday during a Defense Writers Group breakfast in Washington, D.C.

“It’s just a matter of does it come on Christmas Eve, does it come on Christmas Day, does it come after the New Year?” Brown added.

Another option Brown said could be on the table is that North Korea, which has not tested an intercontinental ballistic missile since 2017, could announce it will lift its self-imposed moratorium on those long-range tests.

The move would mark an escalation in North Korea’s actions so far this year. Since May, Pyongyang has conducted a series of short-range missile tests, including two missile launches in December.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has sought to mitigate tension by announcing in November that it would indefinitely delay a joint military exercise between the U.S. and South Korea known as the Combined Flying Training Event — a move Secretary of Defense Mark Esper characterized at the time as an “act of goodwill” toward North Korea to promote denuclearization.

Despite North Korea’s recent tests, Brown said he’s not concerned that readiness at a tactical level will suffer due to postponing the exercises.

“What I look at is our ability to maintain our readiness,” Brown said.

Brown said resuming the exercises is not up to him, but noted that he is trying to stay ahead of the game by reexamining possible responses the military had lined up in 2017 when Pyongyang, according to CNN’s tally, tested eight ICBMs.

“Our job is to backstop the diplomatic efforts,” Brown said. “And if the diplomatic efforts kind of fall apart, we’ve got to be ready, and I can’t be studying the problem. And that’s the thing, we’re already thinking ahead.”

In addition to the “Chrismas gift” warning, Pyongyang has also informed the U.S. repeatedly it must act before Dec. 31 in order to pave the way for future diplomacy. But the U.S. special representative for North Korea said Monday the U.S. is not obligated to comply with Pyongyang’s year-end deadline.

Although Brown was tight-lipped on specifics, he said North Korea’s recent rhetoric, coupled with the tests, are signs that “there is activity” going on in North Korea concerning a long-range missile.

“There is a pattern that you see with the North Koreans,” Brown said. “Their rhetoric precedes activity, which precedes a launch.”

Brown’s comments came after Esper told reporters on Monday that North Korea was inclined to conduct tests if Pyongyang is discontented with the U.S.

“We have seen talk of tests. I think that they will be likely if they don’t feel satisfied,” Esper said, according to Reuters.

Even so, Esper also noted that the U.S. “remain[s] in a high state of readiness” and said that a team has reached out to request a meeting with North Korea.

“We need to get serious and sit down and have discussions about a political agreement that denuclearizes the peninsula,” he said. “That’s the best way forward and arguably the only way forward if we’re going to do something constructive.”

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