Referencing recent U.S. airstrikes in Syria and Afghanistan, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence issued a strong warning to North Korea Monday that President Donald Trump will use military force if needed to deal with the Kim Jong Un government’s escalating nuclear threat.
“Just in the last two weeks the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria in Afghanistan. North Korea would do well not to test his resolve,” said Vice President Pence.
The vice president is visiting South Korea at the start of a four-nation Asia tour to reinforce the U.S. strong commitment to allies in this increasingly volatile region and to build international support for increasing pressure on the Kim Jong Un government to end its nuclear and ballistic missile development programs.
Pence: The Era of Strategic Patience is Over
During a press conference in Seoul Monday with acting South Korean President Hwang Kyo-ahn, Pence stressed the “unshakable” U.S. support to defend its longstanding ally and to cooperate on all decisions regarding regional security.
“We will continue to closely consult with South Korea and your leadership as we make decisions moving forward,” he said.
Many in South Korea have grown increasingly concerned that the U.S. might take unilateral military action against North Korea that could plunge the region into war.
In his remarks the acting South Korea president stressed the need to increase economic sanctions against the North and did not address the issue of military force.
“We share the understanding of the gravity and urgency of the North Korean nuclear and missile threat, and agreed to double our efforts to change North Korea’s strategic calculations by further tightening the global network of pressure on North Korea,” said Hwang.
Also on Sunday U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster seemed to walk back the threat of a possible U.S. military strike against North Korea, at least for now.
“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 the ABC news network’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 reportedly focusing 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.
The vice president reiterated Trump’s recent praise for China’s increased enforcement of economic sanctions that included sending back cargo ships full of coal, one of the North’s most lucrative exports, and canceling some airline flights into Pyongyang.
While China supports U.N. sanctions to pressure North Korea into nuclear disarmament talks, is has been reluctant to harshly implement measures that might produce instability at its border and increase U.S. power in the region.
Failed missile test
The vice president’s visit comes at a time of heightened military tensions over North Korea’s defiant efforts to ultimately develop a nuclear tipped intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the U.S. mainland and the Trump administration’s determination to prevent that from happening.
Trump has talked tough about stopping North Korea, and last week sent the USS Carl Vinson nuclear-powered aircraft carrier into the region in response to reports that North Korea was preparing to conduct a nuclear test during the celebration of the birthday of the nation’s founding leader Kim Il Sung, a holiday known as the Day of the Sun.
Pyongyang did not conduct the anticipated nuclear test over the weekend but did hold a massive military parade on Saturday that exhibited some new long-range and submarine-based missiles, and attempted to test a medium-range missile on Sunday that exploded seconds after it was launched.
Both Pence and Hwang also strongly endorsed the controversial THAAD missile defense system being deployed, that China strongly opposes.
Beijing objects to the advance weapons system as an unnecessary and provocative regional military escalation and voiced concern that the system’s powerful radar could be used to spy on them and other countries as well. China has reportedly imposed informal economic sanctions against South Korea by limiting tourism, imports of Korean cosmetics, and canceling K-pop concerts and shutting down a number of South Korean department stores in China.
Pence urged China to focus on North Korea as a source of the regional security problem and not on South Korea.
“The United States is troubled by China’s economic retaliation against South Korea for taking appropriate steps to defend itself,” said the vice president.
Acting President Hwang thanked President Trump for bringing this issue up during his recent meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at his Florida golf resort that Pence referred to at the press conference as the Southern White House.
“I appreciate the United States taking a clear position on various occasions including at the US, China summit with regard to China’s unfair actions in connection with the USFK (United States Forces in Korea) deployment of THAAD,” he said.
Pence, whose father served in the 1950-53 Korean War, spent part of Monday visiting the highly fortified demilitarized zone (DMZ) at the inter-Korean border that is a heavily mined, four kilometer wide strip of land lined where opposing armies still remain on high alert to deter a possible enemy attack.
South Korea election
The vice president also voiced strong U.S. support for the democratic transition underway in South Korea and for whoever wins the presidential election scheduled for May 9. The special election comes in the wake of the impeachment of ex President Park Geun-hye for her alleged involvement in a multi-million dollar corruption scandal. Prosecutors Monday indicted Park on multiple criminal charges including bribery for her role in the scandal.
In a recent presidential debate all the top party candidates, representing both liberal and conservative views, spoke out against the U.S. taking unilateral military action against North Korea. And the two leading candidates Moon Jae-in with the Democratic Party and Ahn Cheol-soo with the People’s Party, both support direct dialogue with North Korea to reduce tensions, positions that may put them in opposition to U.S. policy.
While most of the candidates support THAAD, Moon has come out in favor of delaying its deployment until a new president takes office and has a chance to review the issue and address China’s security concerns through diplomacy and engagement.
Youmi Kim contributed to this report.