By Terry Atlas and David Lerman
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is leaving it to other U.S. officials to respond publicly to North Korea's hostile rhetoric, as his administration balances a display of military resolve against the risk that its actions will escalate tensions with dictator Kim Jong Un.
Even as North Korea threatens to wage nuclear war on the United States and South Korea, the White House so far has kept American reaction below the presidential level, with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry taking the lead. Obama hasn't commented in public on the crisis this week, and he declined to answer a question on North Korea shouted by a reporter after an April 2 Oval Office meeting.
At the same time, the administration has sought to reassure South Korea that the United States would come to its defense. The U.S. sent B-52 and B-2 bombers to participate in annual U.S.-South Korea military exercises — with the Pentagon announcing the moves even while calling them routine — and deployed two Navy destroyers to the region in gestures to deter a North Korean military provocation.
The U.S. is striking the right balance in responding with rhetorical restraint while showing resolve, said Mark Minton, who was deputy chief of mission at the American embassy in Seoul from 2003 to 2006.
"We've done pretty well in walking that middle ground," Minton, president of the Korea Society, a nonprofit New York- based group, said in an interview. "We have not engaged in overheated rhetoric ourselves. We have taken some quiet, discreet moves that are easily reversible."
Kim's regime warned this week that "the moment of explosion is approaching soon" and said it's poised to conduct a "smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear strike." North Korea also has moved a missile to its eastern coast rocket launch site, possibly for test-firing, according to South Korea's defense minister.