By Roberta Rampton and Sue-Lin Wong | SEOUL/PYONGYANG
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence put North Korea on notice on Monday, warning that recent U.S. 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, in spite of Chinese objections.
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.
"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.
Korean tensions have escalated following repeated North Korean missile tests and concerns that Pyongyang may soon conduct a sixth nuclear bomb test in defiance of U.N. sanctions. The United States worries about the isolated country's efforts to develop a nuclear-topped missile that could hit the U.S. mainland.
Senior North Korean officials on Monday reiterated recent warnings that the situation was "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.”
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence stands next to his daughter looking toward the north through a pair of binocular from an observation post inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, in Paju, South Korea, April 17, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
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."
And North Korea's Vice Foreign Minister Han Song-Ryol told the BBC his country would continue to test missiles on "a weekly, monthly and yearly basis."
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 North-South border 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 demilitarized zone (DMZ).
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, despite the sending of the carrier group.
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 said on Sunday the softer line he has taken on China's currency management was linked to its help on North Korea.
China has appeared increasingly frustrated with its North Korean neighbor and ally, speaking out against its weapons tests and supporting U.N. sanctions, while repeatedly calling for talks.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said China had taken some "very helpful" steps, although it remained to be seen how effective these would be.
Susan Thornton, acting U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia, told reporters Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and China's top diplomat, State Councillor Yang Jiechi, agreed in a phone call on Sunday on the need for strict enforcement of U.N. resolutions and for international action to press Pyongyang "to cease provocative actions and recommit to peaceful denuclearization.”
Thornton said any new North Korean nuclear test "would draw a pretty significant international response".
"We don’t want to telegraph exactly what that is," she added. "We’re definitely not seeking conflict or regime change. But we are committed to defending our people and our allies should it be necessary.”
China banned imports of North Korean coal, the country's most important export, in February, and Chinese media has raised the possibility of restricting oil shipments to the North.
However, Beijing says the crisis is one between the United States and North Korea.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said the situation was "highly sensitive, complicated and high risk" and all sides should "avoid taking provocative actions".
(Additional reporting by Sue-Lin Wong in Pyongyang, Jack Kim and James Pearson in Seoul, Daniel Trotta in New York, Lucia Mutikani, Caren Bohan, David Brunnstrom, Matt Spetalnick and Steve Holland in Washington and Michael Martina in Beijing; Editing by Robert Birsel and Alistair Bell)