Tension was rising between the US and North Korea on Thursday as the North appeared to be gearing up for another nuclear test.
Intelligence officials told NBC News that the US was prepared to launch a preemptive strike against North Korea with conventional weapons if it was certain the reclusive nation was going to perform another nuclear-weapons test, according to an NBC News report.
The officials reportedly said the US had two destroyers capable of shooting Tomahawk cruise missiles into North Korea — the same type of weapon used to strike a Syrian airfield last week.
Voice of America's Washington bureau chief, Steve Herman, cited sources disputing the notion that the US was readying a preemptive strike, saying instead that retaliation was "likely" if North Korea conducted another nuclear test.
Other sources also came forward to challenge NBC News' report. Fox News' national security correspondent, Jennifer Griffin, tweeted: "Multiple sr defense officials say this report is 'wildly wrong' 'crazy.' Pentagon pushing back on NBC report, call it 'extremely dangerous.'"
Earlier Thursday, President Donald Trump said, "North Korea is a problem — the problem will be taken care of," during remarks he gave after the US dropped a massive 21,000-pound bomb on an Islamic State complex of tunnels in Afghanistan. Trump said, however, that the Afghanistan operation was not meant to be a warning to North Korea.
Still, NBC News noted that US bombers were available in Guam to strike the Hermit Kingdom. Additional forces, including the USS Carl Vinson aircraft-carrier strike group and a US Air Force WC-135 "nuke-sniffer" were being relocated into the area of operations during the past week.
North Korean officials mirrored the US statement on Wednesday, saying they would use a nuclear weapon to "hit the US first" if there were indications of a strike from the US.
"By relentlessly bringing in a number of strategic nuclear assets to the Korean Peninsula, the US is gravely threatening the peace and safety and driving the situation to the brink of a nuclear war," a North Korean statement said, according to NBC News.
Regardless of whether the US is prepared to launch a preemptive strike, recent evidence suggests that North Korea may be gearing up for its sixth nuclear test underground.
Recent satellite images from 38 North, a research group from the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, indicates "unusually high levels of activity" at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, the same location where four of the past tests were conducted. This latest satellite imagery also comes amid another VOA report that cited US officials saying a device at a nuclear test site "could be detonated Saturday or even sooner."
Saturday marks 105 years since the birth of Kim Il-sung, North Korea's founder. The nation has in the past conducted other extravagant military displays on special dates — in April 2012, the country fired a long-range rocket before the 100th anniversary of his birth. That mission failed.
Officials from China, North Korea's main ally, delivered a warning against continued provocations.
"Military force cannot resolve the issue," China's foreign minister, Wang Yi, said in a Reuters report on Thursday. "Amid tensions we will also find a kind of opportunity to return to talks."
"Whoever provokes the situation, whoever continues to make trouble in this place, they will have to assume historical responsibility," Wang said.
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