Petraeus said that he doubted that the US would wage a nuclear war against North Korea no matter how high the tensions ran. Instead, Petraeus said, the tough talk on North Korea from US President Donald Trump is aimed at a totally different party: Chinese President Xi Jinping.
"This is about getting President Xi's attention… so that China will really clamp down on the umbilical cord through which 90 percent of the trade that goes to and from North Korea transits," Petraeus told ABC News.
"I don't think [nuclear war is] likely, no. I think, in fact, that again all of this is a communications strategy that is trying to make sure that China understands that this administration is in a very different situation from any of its predecessors, that North Korea on this president's watch could have the capability to hit a city in the United States with a nuclear weapon."
Despite rumored disagreements between Trump and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Petraeus said that both men were targeting China to get to North Korea. "This is aimed at China," Petraeus said. "Secretary Tillerson is undertaking the kind of strategic engagement that is necessary here to build that relationship."
He added that he believed China's economic and political leverage over Pyongyang could "bring North Korea to its senses but doesn't want to bring it to its knees," echoing comments from US Pacific Commander Admiral Harry Harris when the crisis first began in April.
"I think there's still an opportunity here [for a diplomatic solution]," Petraeus said.
Trump's rhetoric on North Korea is far harsher than that of his predecessors, and US military action in the Korean Peninsula has been equally intense. On Sunday, stories broke that the US fleet of B-52 nuclear bombers may be preparing to resume 24-hour red alert status for the first time since the Cold War ended. If the order to raise the alert status is made, the bomber fleet will stand ready to drop cruise missiles equipped with W80 nuclear warheads on the socialist country at any time.
North Korea replied with outrage at the announcement, calling Trump "heinous and reckless" and his threats "a big miscalculation and an expression of ignorance" in an open letter on Monday. They added that Trump was "trying to drive the world into a horrible nuclear disaster."
Petraeus, formerly the US military's top dog in Iraq from 2007-2008 and then Afghanistan from 2010-2011, most recently served as director of the CIA from 2011 to 2012 under Barack Obama. He resigned from his position when it was found that he had cheated on his wife with his biographer Paula Broadwell. He is now a private citizen, who works for a variety of think tanks and universities.