Top U.S. military commander at Aspen Security: potential conflict with North Korea would be ‘horrific’ loss of life

Moderator Andrea Mitchell, Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent at NBC News, interviews Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford in 2017 at the Aspen Security Forum.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times


While most of reporter Andrea Mitchell’s interview of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford focused on world conflicts, she slipped in a question about his relationship to President Trump that lightened the mood.

“The President says he loves his generals,” Mitchell said. “You were in a tank with him this week. How does he interact with you? Is he a good listener?”

“He loves me,” Dunford replied after a short delay, breaking the crowd up in laughter.

“I’m not surprised you asked the question,” Dunford added, “but you’d be surprised if I answered it.”

So Mitchell tweaked the question, asking about Trump’s demeanor.

“He’s a very curious individual. He asks a lot of questions. He asks a lot of hard questions,” Dunford said. “And one thing he does is he questions some fundamental assumptions that we make as military leaders. It’s a pretty energetic and active dialogue.”

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff closed out the Aspen Security Forum on Saturday night stressing that the U.S. must work on military options to derail North Korea’s missiles program even though conflict would result in a “horrific” loss of life.

Gen. Joseph Dunford said the military fully supports the economic and diplomatic efforts underway by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to bring North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to the bargaining table. However, it is Dunford’s job to draw up the military options as a back-up plan.

“Many people have talked about the military options with words such as unimaginable,” Dunford said while addressing a near-capacity crowd in the Greenwald Pavilion. “I would probably shift that slightly and say it would be horrific and it would be a loss of life unlike any we’ve experienced in our lifetime, and I mean anyone who’s been alive since World War II has never seen a loss of life that could occur if there is a conflict on the Korean peninsula.”

North Korea conducted 16 missile tests last year and held two nuclear weapons tests in 2016, according to Dunford. The country is clearly on a path to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile with nuclear capabilities that can reach the United States, he said.

Currently, North Korea is capable of limited missile attacks, which the U.S. military can defend, Dunford said. The concern is North Korea’s growing capacity.

“It is not unimaginable to have military options to respond to North Korea’s nuclear capability,” Dunford said. “What is unimaginable to me is allowing the capability to allow nuclear weapons to land in Denver, Colorado. My job will be to develop military options to make sure that doesn’t happen. Again, the primary task is to support Secretary Tillerson right now.”

He noted that many people are making the assumption that China will not be interested in a U.S. effort to pressure North Korea not to develop nuclear weapons. Dunford isn’t so sure. North Korea has become more of a liability than an asset to China, he said.

Andrea Mitchell, the veteran NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent who was interviewing Dunford, asked him about CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s suggestion Thursday at the Aspen Security Forum that a regime change might be an option. Dunford said any effort to remove Kim Jung-un was a policy decision that he couldn’t speculate on.

Dunford also spent considerable time talking about fighting in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. One critical task for the U.S. military and its allies is to contain the foreign fighters who have flooded Iraq and Syria to aid the Islamic State, he said. They cannot be allowed to escape and undertake guerilla tactics and terrorist attacks elsewhere.

Even though Islamic State has lost most of its territory in Iraq, the conflict is still intense.

“There’s a lot of fighting that remains to be done in Iraq,” Dunford said.

The general received a standing ovation from the crowd in the pavilion for his decades of service when his talk ended.