SEOUL/PYONGYANG: US Vice President Mike Pence put North Korea on notice on Monday, warning that recent US military strikes in Syria and Afghanistan showed the resolve of President Donald Trump should not be tested.
Pence and South Korean acting president Hwang Kyo-ahn, speaking after a failed missile test by North Korea and a huge display of missiles in Pyongyang, said they would move ahead with the early deployment to South Korea of the U.S. THAAD missile-defence system.
Pence was on the first stop of a four-nation Asia tour intended to show that the Trump administration is not turning its back on the increasingly volatile region.
“Just in the past two weeks, the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan,” Pence said in an appearance with Hwang.
(Graphic – North Korea’s nuclear program: tmsnrt.rs/2n0gd92)
“North Korea would do well not to test his resolve or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region,” Pence said.
The U.S. Navy this month struck a Syrian airfield with 59 Tomahawk missiles after a chemical weapons attack. On Thursday, the U.S. military dropped “the mother of all bombs”, the largest non-nuclear device it has ever unleashed in combat, on caves and tunnels used by Islamic State in Afghanistan.
Tension has escalated sharply on the Korean peninsula amid repeated North Korean missile tests and concerns that Pyongyang may soon conduct a sixth nuclear bomb test.
Pyongyang has carried out missile and nuclear tests in defiance of U.N. sanctions, and has been working to develop a nuclear-topped missile that could strike the U.S. mainland, although U.S. officials say this capability is still several years away.
Senior North Korean officials on Monday reiterated recent rhetorical warnings that the situation on the Korean peninsula is “nearing the brink of war.”
Kim Song Gyong, director general of the European Department of the Foreign Ministry in Pyongyang, told Reuters that if Washington made “the slightest movement” to make a nuclear strike on North Korea, Pyongyang would strike first and “destroy the aggressors without any mercy.”
Kim went on to clarify that the approach to the Korean peninsula of a U.S. aircraft carrier strike force, led by the nuclear powered USS Carl Vinson, would not be considered enough to constitute “the slightest movement”.
North Korea’s deputy representative to the United Nations, Kim In Ryong, accused Washington of creating “a situation where nuclear war could break out an any time” and said Pyongyang’s next nuclear test would take place “at a time and at a place where our headquarters deems necessary.”
At a White House Easter celebration, Trump was asked by a reporter if he had a message for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and replied: “Gotta behave.”
Pence, whose father served in the 1950-53 Korean War, visited the border between North and South Korea earlier on Monday and said Washington would stand by its “iron-clad alliance” with South Korea.
“All options are on the table to achieve the objectives and ensure the stability of the people of this country,” he told reporters as tinny propaganda music floated across from the North Korean side of the so-called demilitarised zone (DMZ).
“There was a period of strategic patience, but the era of strategic patience is over.”
North Korea will continue to test missiles, a senior official told the BBC in Pyongyang. “We’ll be conducting more missile tests on a weekly, monthly and yearly basis,” Vice Foreign Minister Han Song-Ryol said.
Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, said on Sunday that the United States, its allies and China were working on a range of responses to North Korea’s latest missile test, citing what he called an international consensus to act.
McMaster indicated Trump was not considering military action for now, in spite of the approach of the carrier group to the region.
Officials say the U.S. administration is focusing on tougher economic sanctions, possibly including an oil embargo, a global ban on North Korea’s airline, intercepting cargo ships and punishing Chinese banks doing business with Pyongyang.
Pence is expected to discuss Korean tensions with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Tuesday when he travels to Tokyo for economic talks with Finance Minister Taro Aso. He will also visit Jakarta and Sydney.
His economic discussions will be closely watched to see how hard a line Washington is prepared to take on trade. Trump campaigned on an “America First” platform, and has vowed to narrow big trade deficits with nations like China and Japan.
But Trump has also shown willingness to link trade to other issues, saying he would cut a better trade deal with China if it exerts influence on North Korea to curb its nuclear ambitions.
Trump acknowledged on Sunday that the softer line he has taken on China’s management of its currency was linked to its help on North Korea.
China has appearing increasingly frustrated with its North Korean neighbor and ally, speaking out against the weapons tests and supporting U.N. sanctions, while repeatedly calling for talks.
China banned imports of North Korean coal in February cutting off its most important export and Chinese media has raised the possibility of restricting oil shipments to the North if it unleashed more provocations.
However, Beijing says the crisis is one between the United States and North Korea.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said the Korean situation was “highly sensitive, complicated and high risk” and all sides should “avoid taking provocative actions that pour oil on the fire”.
Pence and Hwang said they were troubled by retaliatory economic moves by China against THAAD deployment.
China says the system’s powerful radar can undermine its security, while the United States say the sole purpose of the deployment is to guard against North Korean missiles.