Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. (Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — The United States will shoot down any North Korean-launched missile that appears likely to hit Guam, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Monday.

Such an act against the U.S. territory could lead to a war neither country wants, he added.

But Mattis did not say what actions the U.S. military would take if North Korea fired missiles toward waters around the small American island in the Pacific Ocean.

“I can’t make all those kinds of decisions in advance,” the defense secretary told reporters at the Pentagon. “I need a certain amount of ambiguity on this, because I’m not going to tell them what I’m going to do in each case.”

Ultimately, those decisions, including whether a military response is warranted, would be up to President Donald Trump, he said.

The U.S. military can determine “within moments” of a missile’s launch whether it poses a threat to land belonging to the United States or one of its allies, Mattis said. North Korea’s state-run media said last week that its army was finalizing a plan to fire four missiles into waters near Guam by mid-August.

The statement did not seem to threaten the actual island, an act that would force the United States to respond with military power.

“You don’t shoot at people in the world unless you want to bear the consequences,” Mattis said Monday.

North Korea’s threat followed increasingly heated rhetoric last week from Trump and others in his administration, including Mattis who warned the reclusive nation to refrain from actions that would “lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people.”

Earlier Monday, Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wrote in a Wall Street Journal editorial that they did not seek North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s ouster or the immediate reunification of the Korea. Instead, they wrote they seek the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula through diplomatic channels.

The secretaries wrote they had no “desire to inflict harm on the long-suffering North Korean people, who are distinct from the hostile regime in Pyongyang[North Korea’s capital].”

The United States, which has about 28,500 troops in South Korea, has not made any significant military adjustments to its forces on the peninsula or in the region as of Monday, said Army Col. Rob Manning, a Pentagon spokesman.

Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited South Korea on Sunday, and warned of the devastation a war with North Korea would cause.

“It would be a horrible thing were a war to be conducted here on the peninsula, and that’s why we’re so focused on coming up with a peaceful way ahead,” Dunford said. “… “Nobody’s looking for war.” Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

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Corey Dickstein covers the military in the U.S. southeast. He joined the Stars and Stripes staff in 2015 and covered the Pentagon for more than five years. He previously covered the military for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Dickstein holds a journalism degree from Georgia College & State University and has been recognized with several national and regional awards for his reporting and photography. He is based in Atlanta.

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