Pence warns against N.K. provocations, renews commitment to S. Korea alliance

SEOUL-- U.S. Vice President Mike Pence sent a strong warning to North Korea Monday to abstain from testing U.S. "resolve" in an apparent effort to deter the belligerent North from carrying out additional provocations, experts said.

The visiting vice president also focused on placating growing anxiety here that South Korea might be sidelined in the U.S.' possible decision to take military action against the North, emphasizing that its commitment to safety and security on the Korean Peninsula remains strong, they added.

"Just in the past two weeks, the world has witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan," Pence said. "North Korea would do well not to test his resolve or the strength of armed forces of the United States in this region."

The vice president made the remarks during a joint press conference held in Seoul after his talks with South Korean Acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn. He is the highest-ranking U.S. official to have visited South Korea since the Donald Trump administration took office in January.

Pence came to Seoul amid growing worries that the North might carry out an additional nuclear test or a long-range missile launch this month.

The U.S. has dispatched the USS Carl Vinson, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, to waters off the divided peninsula with some in Washington calling for a pre-emptive strike against the North.

The North upped the ante by responding with harsh rhetoric and showing off its military prowess.

On Saturday, the North marked the 105th birthday of Kim Il-sung, the late founder of the country and the grandfather of leader Kim Jong-un, by holding a military parade, showing off what appears to be a new intercontinental ballistic missile. It was followed by a botched missile test on Sunday, the day Pence arrived in South Korea.

"Unlike the previous government, the Trump administration even having a military option on the table raises concerns that South Korea could be sidelined. Pence's visit seems aimed at placating the concerns," said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior research fellow at the state-run South Korean think tank Sejong Institute.

"Also, in response to the North's threat of war should there be military action by the U.S., Pence came with a message that such a threat doesn't work. It is a sort of staring contest going on between the U.S. and North Korea," he added,

During the press conference, Pence reassured South Korea that the alliance between the two countries remains "ironclad" and "immutable" and that it will get even stronger under the Donald Trump administration.

"We are with you 100 percent. Even in these troubled times, we stand with you for a free and secure future. The U.S. stands shoulder to shoulder with the Republic of Korea," he said. "We will continue to closely consult with South Korea and your leadership as we make decisions moving forward."

Pence's trip to Seoul also drew attention as the U.S. has reportedly completed its review of North Korea policy under which it decided to focus more on maximum pressure and engagement. This signals stepped-up pressure on the North Korean regime, which will require closer cooperation from its allies and other countries.

China seems to be taking on more importance in making the approach a success. The U.S. is calling for more cooperation from Beijing in dealing with the North, which was highlighted by U.S. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster in a recent TV interview, saying, "North Korea is very vulnerable to pressure from the Chinese."

Reiterating Washington's stance on the North, Pence made clear that "strategic patience," a policy direction adopted under the Barack Obama administration, is over and "all options" are on the table in addressing the North's nuclear problem.

Experts said that his presence in Seoul and message are trained not just on the North but also on China. Pence didn't rule out the option of the U.S. moving "unilaterally" along with its allies in case Beijing "is unable to deal with North Korea," an apparent bid to put more pressure on Pyongyang's closest ally to act.

"Pence's visit to Seoul seems to be aimed at sending a resolute message not just to North Korea but also to China, asking them to choose between denuclearization and a nuclear-armed North Korea," said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University.

"The fact that Pence is in Seoul at the most feared timing for a possible nuclear test by the North demonstrates that the U.S. approach to Pyongyang will be different from the previous government. The pressure is on China to actively respond and help prevent more additional nuclear tests by the North," he added.

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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