17 Apr 2017

US vice-president visits Korean demilitarised zone

5:34 pm on 17 April 2017

United States vice-president Mike Pence has visited the gateway to the demilitarised zone, the area dividing the two Koreas, reiterating that the US "era of strategic patience" with Pyongyang was over.

Mike Pence (second right) visits Observation Post Ouellette with his daughters near the truce village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone.

Mike Pence (second right) visits Observation Post Ouellette with his daughters near the truce village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone. Photo: AFP

Mr Pence, who is set to meet the acting president of South Korea, Hwang Kyo-ahn, will visit four nations on his 10-day Asia tour.

At the weekend, North Korea's latest missile test failed, exploding shortly after take off.

Mr Pence's visit is aimed at showing America's allies - and remind its adversaries - that the Trump administration is not turning its back on the increasingly volatile region.

The demilitarized zone (DMZ) is a heavily mined, 4km-wide strip of land lined with barbed wire running across the Korean peninsula, with soldiers on both sides in a continual eyeball-to-eyeball standoff.

Mr Pence, whose father served in the 1950-53 Korean War, said the US would stand by its "iron-clad alliance" with South Korea 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 said, adding that US President Donald Trump has made clear he would not talk about specific military tactics.

"There was a period of strategic patience but the era of strategic patience is over," Mr Pence told reporters.

Mike Pence (right) speaks to the media as US General Vincent Brooks, Commander of the United Nations Command, Combined Forces Command and United States Forces Korea looks on.

Mike Pence (right) speaks to the media as US General Vincent Brooks, Commander of the United Nations Command, Combined Forces Command and United States Forces Korea looks on. Photo: AFP

The United States, its allies and China are working together on a range of responses to North Korea's latest failed ballistic missile test, Donald Trump's national security adviser said on Sunday, citing what he called an international consensus to act.

H R McMaster indicated that Mr Trump was not considering military action 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 programme. "We are working together with our allies and partners and with the Chinese leadership to develop a range of options.

"There is an international consensus now, including the Chinese leadership, that this is a situation that just cannot continue."

The Trump administration is focusing its North Korea 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, Reuters reported last week, citing US officials.

While Mr Trump has employed tough rhetoric in response to North Korea's recent missile tests, his 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.

Mr 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.

What appeared to be new long-range ballistic missiles were on display in the parade.

We'll see what happens

Tensions have risen as Mr Trump takes a hard rhetorical line with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who has rebuffed admonitions from China and proceeded with nuclear and missile programmes seen by Washington as a direct threat.

Mr Trump has backed away from a campaign promise to label China a currency manipulator, remarking on Sunday the softer line he had taken was linked to Beijing's help on the North Korea issue.

"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 said on Twitter.

Mr Pence said Mr 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.

Mr Trump's decision to order a cruise missile strike on a Syrian airfield this month, in response to what he said was Syria's use of chemical weapons, raised questions about his plans for reclusive North Korea.

Meanwhile, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe urged North Korea to refrain from taking further provocative actions, comply with United Nations resolutions and abandon its nuclear missile development.

"Japan will closely cooperate with the US and South Korea over North Korea and will call for China to take a bigger role," Mr Abe told the Japanese parliament.

However, a US foreign policy adviser traveling with Mr Pence sought to defuse some of the tension, saying Sunday's test of what was believed to be a medium-range missile had come as no surprise.

"We had good intelligence before the launch and good intelligence after the launch," the adviser told reporters on condition of anonymity.

China has also spoken out against North Korea

China has spoken out against the North's weapons tests and has supported UN sanctions. It has repeatedly called for talks while appearing increasingly frustrated with the North.

Beijing banned imports of North Korean coal on 26 February, cutting off Pyongyang's most important export. China's customs department issued an order on 7 April telling traders to return North Korean coal cargoes, trading sources said.

Pyongyang has conducted several missile and nuclear tests in defiance of UN sanctions, and regularly threatens to destroy South Korea and the United States. North and South Korea are technically still at war because their 1950-1953 conflict ended in a truce, not a treaty.

The North has said it has developed and would launch a missile that can strike the US mainland, but officials and experts believe it is some time away from mastering the necessary technology, including miniaturizing a nuclear warhead.

Sunday's missile launch was a calculated move, the China Daily newspaper said in an editorial.

"And making it without prompting a furious response from Washington surely qualifies as a win to some degree from Kim's perspective," it said, referring to leader Kim Jong Un.

"Trump, too, can claim a win. That the nuclear test did not happen will surely be seen as the pressure working."

- Reuters / BBC

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