PANMUNJOM – US Vice President Mike Pence declared Monday the “era of strategic patience is over” with North Korea, expressing impatience with the speed and willingness of the regime to move toward ridding itself of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
Mr Pence told reporters near the demilitarised zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea that President Donald Trump is hopeful that China will use its “extraordinary levers” to pressure the North to abandon its weapons.
Mr Pence, who has called the North’s failed missile test a day earlier “a provocation”, said the US and its allies will achieve its objectives through “peaceable means or ultimately by whatever means are necessary” to protect South Korea and stabilise the region.
Mr Pence visited a military base near the DMZ, Camp Bonifas, for a briefing with military leaders and to meet with American troops stationed there. The joint US-South Korean military camp is just outside the 4km-wide DMZ.
His visit, full of Cold War symbolism, and his remarks to reporters come amid increasing tensions and heated rhetoric on the Korean Peninsula. While the North did not conduct a nuclear test, the spectre of a potential escalated US response trailed Pence as he began a 10-day trip to Asia.
Pointing to the quarter-century since North Korea first obtained nuclear weapons, the vice president said a period of patience followed.
“But the era of strategic patience is over,” Mr Pence said. “President Trump has made it clear that the patience of the United States and our allies in this region has run out and we want to see change. We want to see North Korea abandon its reckless path of the development of nuclear weapons, and also its continual use and testing of ballistic missiles is unacceptable.”
Mr Trump himself asserted on Sunday that China was working with the US on “the North Korea problem”. His national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, said the US would rely on its allies, as well as on Chinese leadership, to resolve the issues with North Korea.
Mr McMaster cited Mr Trump’s recent decision to order missile strikes in Syria after a chemical attack blamed on the Assad government as a sign that the president “is clearly comfortable making tough decisions”. But at the same time, Mr McMaster said on This Week on ABC, “it’s time for us to undertake all actions we can, short of a military option, to try to resolve this peacefully”.
The bottom line, Mr McMaster said, is to stop the North’s weapons development and make the Korean Peninsula nuclear-free. “It’s clear that the president is determined not to allow this kind of capability to threaten the United States. And our president will take action that is in the best interest of the American people,” he said.
After a two-month policy review, officials settled on a policy dubbed “maximum pressure and engagement,” US officials said Friday. The administration’s immediate emphasis, the officials said, will be on increasing pressure on Pyongyang with the help of Beijing.
The officials weren’t authorised to speak publicly on the results of the policy review and requested anonymity.
Meanwhile, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reiterated his belief that pressure, not only dialogue, is necessary in dealing with North Korea’s missile and nuclear threat.
Speaking to a parliamentary session Monday following North Korea’s massive military parade and botched missile launch, Mr Abe said: “Needless to say, diplomatic effort is important to maintain peace. But dialogue for the sake of having dialogue is meaningless.”
He said “we need to apply pressure on North Korea so they seriously respond to a dialogue” with the international community. Mr Abe also urged China and Russia to play more constructive roles on the issue.
Mr Pence will be tasked with explaining the policy in meetings with leaders in South Korea and Japan during the trip, which will also include stops in Indonesia and Australia. He will aim to reassure allies in South Korea and Japan that the US will take appropriate steps to defend them against North Korean aggression.
A North Korean missile exploded during launch on Sunday, US and South Korean officials said. The high-profile failure came as the North tried to showcase its nuclear and missile capabilities around the birth anniversary of the North’s late founder and as a US aircraft carrier neared the Korean Peninsula.
A White House foreign policy adviser travelling with Mr Pence said no US response to the missile launch was expected because there was no need for the US to reinforce the failure. The adviser spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the administration’s initial understanding of the launch.
Mr Trump, spending the Easter weekend at his Florida resort, reinforced his commitment to the armed forces under his control. “Our military is building and is rapidly becoming stronger than ever before,” he tweeted.
More directly on North Korea, the president returned to a theme of placing much onus on China for reining in the North. Last week, he said he would not declare China a currency manipulator, pulling back from a campaign promise, as he looks for help from Beijing, which is the North’s dominant trade partner.
“Why would I call China a currency manipulator when they are working with us on the North Korean problem? We will see what happens!” Mr Trump tweeted on Sunday.
Deputy national adviser K.T. McFarland briefed the president on the failed missile launch. She advised patience with China on the issue.
“North Korea is a liability to everybody and it’s a threat not just to the United States, not just to South Korea, not just to Japan, not just to Russia, but it’s actually a threat to China as well,” Mrs McFarland said Sunday on Fox News Sunday.
Into this tense environment, Mr Pence made his first trip to the region since taking office in January. After arriving in the South Korean capital, he placed a wreath at Seoul National Cemetery and then worshipped with military personnel at an Easter church service at the US Army Garrison Yongsan.
During a fellowship meal after the services, he said the tensions on the Korean peninsula had put into sharp focus the importance of the joint US-South Korean mission.
“This morning’s provocation from the North is just the latest reminder of the risks each one of you face every day in the defence of the freedom of the people of South Korea and the defence of America in this part of the world,” said Mr Pence. “Your willingness to step forward, to serve, to stand firm without fear, inspires the nation and inspires the world.”
Along with the deployment of the US aircraft carrier and other vessels into waters off the Korean Peninsula, thousands of US and South Korean troops, tanks and other weaponry were deployed last month in their biggest joint military exercises. That led North Korea to issue routine threats of attacks on its rivals if they show signs of aggression.
The White House foreign policy adviser travelling with Mr Pence told reporters that the type of missile that North Korea tried to fire on Sunday was medium-range, and that it exploded about 4-5 seconds after it was launched.
The North regularly launches short-range missiles, but is also developing mid-range and long-range missiles meant to target US troops in Asia and, eventually, the US mainland.
North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests, including two last year. Recent satellite imagery suggests the country could conduct another underground nuclear test at any time.
By Ken Thomas – The Associated Press