SEOUL – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence put North Korea on notice Monday, saying neither the United States nor South Korea would tolerate further missile and nuclear tests, with U.S. attacks in Syria and Afghanistan showing its resolve.
Pence and South Korean Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn, speaking a day after a failed missile test by the North and two days after a huge display of missiles in Pyongyang, also said they would strengthen anti-North Korea defense by moving ahead with the early deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system.
Pence is on the first stop of a four-nation Asia tour intended to show America’s allies, and remind its adversaries, that the administration of President Donald Trump was not turning its back on the increasingly volatile region.
In a joint appearance, Pence said North Korea should mind the actions and intent of the president.
“Just in the past two weeks, the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan. North Korea would do well not to test his resolve or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region.”
The U.S. Navy this month struck a Syrian airfield with 59 Tomahawk missiles. On Thursday, the U.S. military said it had dropped “the mother of all bombs,” the largest non-nuclear device it has ever unleashed in combat, on a network of caves and tunnels used by Islamic State militants in eastern Afghanistan.
North Korea’s KCNA news agency on Monday carried a letter from leader Kim Jong Un to Syrian President Bashar Assad marking the 70th anniversary of Syria’s independence.
“I express again a strong support and alliance to the Syrian government and its people for its work of justice, condemning the United States’ recent violent invasive act against your country,” Kim said.
On a visit to the border between North and South Korea earlier in the day, Pence reiterated that the U.S. era of “strategic patience” — the Obama administration’s policy toward Pyongyang — was over.
Pence, whose father served in the 1950-53 Korean War, said Washington would stand by its “iron-clad alliance” with Seoul and was seeking peace through strength.
“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 demilitarized zone (DMZ).
“There was a period of strategic patience but the era of strategic patience is over.”
Also Monday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe emphasized that diplomatic efforts to defuse the rising tensions remain necessary, despite the latest military muscle-flexing by Pyongyang.
“Needless to say, it’s important to maintain peace through diplomatic efforts,” Abe told a Lower House session of the Diet.
“At the same time, dialogue for the sake of dialogue would be meaningless. We need to put pressure on North Korea so that it will seriously respond to calls for dialogue,” he added.
At the Diet session, Abe also said Tokyo has already conducted studies on how to deal with possible refugees in the event of a major armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula.
“We assume we would take a series of actions, including processes to admit landing, set up and manage accommodations, and screen (refugees) to decide whether we should protect them or not,” Abe said.
Japanese officials have long feared a massive influx of refugees to Japan should ever a second Korean conflict erupt. Since the 1990s, Tokyo has conducted studies and simulations on how to deal with refugees while also evacuating numerous Japanese nationals from South Korea.
“The government is responsible for protecting and rescuing Japanese citizens if they face crises overseas,” Abe said.
The United States, its allies and China are working together on a range of responses to North Korea’s latest failed ballistic missile test, Trump’s national security adviser said Sunday, citing what he called an international consensus to act.
China has spoken out against the North’s weapons tests and has supported U.N. sanctions. It has repeatedly called for talks while appearing increasingly frustrated with the North.
But Pence and Hwang said they were troubled by retaliatory economic moves by China against the deployment in South Korea of the THAAD system.
Seoul, which accuses Beijing or discriminating against some South Korean companies working in China, and the United States say the sole purpose of THAAD is to guard against North Korean missiles.
China says its powerful radar can penetrate its territory and undermine its security and spoke out against it again Monday.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told reporters in Beijing the situation on the Korean Peninsula was “highly sensitive, complicated and high risk.”
All sides should “avoid taking provocative actions that pour oil on the fire,” he said.
Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, indicated Sunday that the U.S. president was not considering military action against North Korea for now, even as a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier strike group was heading for the region.
“It’s time for us to undertake all actions we can, short of a military option, to try to resolve this peacefully,” he said on ABC’s “This Week” program. “We are working together with our allies and partners and with the Chinese leadership to develop a range of options.
The Trump administration is focusing its strategy on tougher economic sanctions, possibly including an oil embargo, a global ban on its airline, intercepting cargo ships and punishing Chinese banks doing business with Pyongyang, U.S. officials said last week.
While Trump has employed tough rhetoric in response to North Korea’s recent missile tests, the president’s options appear limited in dealing with a challenge that has vexed his Oval Office predecessors.
Most options fall into four categories: economic sanctions, covert action, diplomatic negotiations and military force.
Pence landed in South Korea hours after the North’s failed missile launch. His visit came a day after North Korea held a military parade in its capital, Pyongyang, marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of founding father Kim Il Sung — current leader Kim Jong Un’s grandfather.
What appeared to be new long-range ballistic missiles were on display at the parade.
Tensions have risen as Trump takes a hard rhetorical line with Kim, who has rebuffed admonitions from China and proceeded with nuclear and missile programs increasingly seen by Washington as a direct threat.
Trump acknowledged Sunday that the softer line he had taken on China’s management of its currency was linked to its help on North Korea.
Pence said Trump was hopeful China “will take actions needed to bring about change in policy” in North Korea.
“But as the president has made very clear, either China will deal with this problem or the United States and our allies will,” he said.
China says the crisis is between the United States and North Korea. Lu said China efforts to help achieve denuclearization were clear, adding: “China is not the initiator of the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue.”
China banned imports of North Korean coal on Feb. 26, 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.
Pyongyang has conducted several missile and nuclear tests in defiance of U.N. sanctions, and has said it has developed and would launch a missile that can strike the U.S. mainland.
U.S. officials and experts believe it is some time away from mastering the necessary technology, including miniaturizing a nuclear warhead.