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Air Force general: North Korea ‘Christmas gift’ could be long-range missile test

A top U.S. Air Force general on Tuesday said he expects North Korea’s “Christmas gift” to the United States to be a long-range missile test.

“What I would expect is some type of long-range ballistic missile would be the gift. 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,” Gen. Charles Brown, commander of Pacific Air Forces and air component commander for U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said at a breakfast roundtable in response to a question from The Hill.

Pressed later in the roundtable on what North Korea could do, Brown said there is a “range” of possibilities.

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“I think there’s a range of things that could occur,” he told reporters. “I think there’s also the possibility that the self-imposed moratorium [on long-range tests] may go away and nothing happens right away. [North Korean leader Kim Jong Un] announces it but then doesn’t shoot.”

As diplomatic efforts at a denuclearization deal with North Korea flounder, Pyongyang recently threatened to deliver an unwelcome “Christmas gift” to the United States. North Korea has also set a year-end deadline for the U.S. to soften its negotiating stance or it will take a “new path.”

Pyongyang has not specified what the new path or Christmas gift will be, but regional experts expect it could include a return to intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or nuclear tests.

North Korea has launched dozens of short-range missiles since May but has adhered to a self-imposed moratorium on ICBM and nuclear tests since talks with the United States began last year.

On Monday, President Trump said he would be “disappointed” if that happens.

“I would be disappointed if something would be in the works, and if it is, we will take care of it,” Trump told reporters.

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“We’re watching it very closely,” Trump continued.

On Tuesday, Brown would not discuss intelligence on whether North Korea is preparing a long-range missile test but pointed to Pyongyang’s recent rhetoric and other recent tests.

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

On Friday, North Korea performed what it described as a “crucial test” at its long-range rocket launch site, without specifying what was tested. That came days after it said it conducted a “very important test” at the same site.

In a bid to get North Korea back to the negotiating table in November, the U.S. military postponed a joint air exercise with South Korea that Pyongyang had been complaining about, the latest in a series of exercises canceled to make space for diplomacy.

Brown said Tuesday the decision to resume exercises amid renewed tension rests with leaders above him. He maintained that he is “not worried” about readiness at “the tactical level,” despite the canceled exercises.

But with the Christmas gift looming, Brown said he is “dust[ing] off” responses the military had at the height of North Korea tensions in 2017 in making recommendations for how to respond to any new provocation.

“Our job is to backstop the diplomatic efforts,” he said. “And if the diplomatic efforts kind of fall apart, we got to be ready, and I can’t be studying the problem. And that’s the thing, we’re already thinking ahead. Go back to 2017, there’s a lot of stuff we did in 2017 that we can dust off pretty quickly and be ready to use. … We are looking at all of the things we have done in the past.”

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