Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Monday that American forces stationed in South Korea need to be prepared to "fight tonight" given the nuclear threat from North Korea.
"It’s not a game," Carter said during remarks on U.S. defense policy at the Hoover Institution in Washington, D.C. "The slogan of U.S. Forces Korea, many of you probably know, is ‘fight tonight.’ Not because that’s what we want to do, but because that’s what we have to be able to do and we are ready to do."
Carter’s comments came less than two weeks after Pyongyang said it had successfully detonated a nuclear warhead, the repressive regime’s fifth and most powerful nuclear test. North Korea has continued to pursue nuclear development in defiance of sanctions from the United States and United Nations.
Carter emphasized the "strong" forward presence that U.S. forces maintain in the region to shield allies against threats from North Korea. Roughly 28,500 American troops are currently stationed in South Korea to deter aggression from Pyongyang.
"We have a very strong presence there. Our South Korean allies get stronger every day," Carter said. "We have a strong ally in Japan. But, unfortunately, the diplomatic picture is bleak. We continue to be open to an improvement in that, try to get Russia and China and others interested down that road but it’s hard to project that that’s where it’s going."
"Therefore, for me, as far as into the future as I can see, we need to stand strong in deterrence," the defense secretary added.
North Korea’s Sept. 9 nuclear test drew ire from President Obama, who condemned it as "a grave threat to regional security and to international peace and stability" and threatened to impose new sanctions on the regime.
Many say that the Obama administration has not done enough to deter North Korea, which in January claimed to have successfully tested a hydrogen bomb and later announced that it had miniaturized nuclear warheads to fit on ballistic missiles.
A bipartisan report issued by the Council on Foreign Relations last week said that the United States’ policy of "strategic patience" will neither stop Pyongyang’s provocations nor stabilize the region in the future.
"North Korea’s accelerating nuclear and missile programs pose a grave and expanding threat to the territory of U.S. allies, to U.S. personnel stationed in the region, and to the continental United States," the report’s task force, which included Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote.
The test has spotlighted North Korea’s relationship with China, which has not deterred leader Kim Jong Un from provocative actions despite urgings from the United States. North Korea announced the latest nuclear test just as Obama returned from a days-long trip to Asia during which he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping to celebrate joint action on climate change amid increasing destabilization in the Asia-Pacific.
Carter said the United States is working to "stay ahead" of the missile threat from North Korea by investing in missile defense.
"Missile defense is a difficult thing. When it comes to a major nuclear threat like that posed by Russia, we know and we have long known we have no way to protect ourselves except deterrence, but we don’t accept that with respect to North Korea and we’re not going to for as long as we can possibly avoid it. So, we do aspire to protection of ourselves and we invest a lot in trying to stay ahead of what they’re doing," Carter said.
"We’ve got North Korea, we’ve got Iran, talking about problematic situations, we’ve got Russia, the Asia-Pacific generally, and of course ISIL, which we’re destroying," Carter added, using another name for the Islamic State or ISIS. "We’ve got plenty to do today, but North Korea is one of these things that just never seems to go away."