TOKYO — Vice President Pence warned North Korea on Monday not to test U.S. military might by pursuing its nuclear weapons program, citing recent strikes in Syria and Afghanistan as proof of American “strength and resolve.”
The stark warning, delivered in Seoul after the vice president went to the military demarcation line that separates the two Koreas, could revive speculation that the White House is considering military action against the regime in Pyongyang.
Pence said the Trump administration wants to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons “through peaceful means,” but he repeated the administration’s warning that “all options are on the table.”
Pence arrived in South Korea just hours after North Korea launched its latest ballistic missile — which exploded within a few seconds — and amid a weekend of fanfare in North Korea, during which the regime showed off what appeared to be new missiles designed to reach the United States.
There, during a trip to the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea and later in remarks to journalists, he issued strong warnings to Pyongyang.
“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 after delivering a statement to the media alongside Hwang Kyo-ahn, South Korea’s acting president. Neither took questions.
“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.
Earlier this month, on Trump’s command, the U.S. military launched 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian military airfield in retaliation for a chemical attack that killed scores of civilians.
Then, less than a week later, the U.S. military dropped a 22,000-pound bomb — the largest non-nuclear bomb ever used in combat by the United States — on Islamic State forces in eastern Afghanistan.
With Kim Jong Un’s regime conducting a steady stream of ballistic missile launches and signs of activity around its nuclear test site, the Trump administration has raised the rhetoric on possible military action to stop it in its tracks.
But any potential strikes against the North would likely bring the United States into a diplomatic crisis with China, which is the North’s main economic lifeline.
In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang called for international talks with North Korea to ease tensions.
Russia, too, warned that the Trump administration was on what Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called a “very risky path.”
“I hope there will be no unilateral actions like those we saw recently in Syria,” Lavrov told reporters in Moscow.
Both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who visited South Korea last month, and Pence have stated that “strategic patience” — the Obama-era policy of putting pressure on North Korea and waiting for it to return to negotiations — is over and that military action is an option to make North Korea desist.
The U.S. Navy’s decision to reroute an aircraft carrier strike group to the Korean Peninsula region as tensions mounted fueled speculation that the Trump administration might carry out a preemptive strike on North Korean military facilities.
Some analysts said Trump might be emboldened by the ease of his actions in Syria in particular.
Administration officials said the situation has become more dangerous but that no decision has been made about how to react to any new provocation by North Korea. They stress their desire to ensure that the situation does not escalate out of control, but at the same time they are not ruling out military action.
“As our secretary of defense made clear here in South Korea not that long ago,” Pence said Monday, “we will defeat any attack, and we will meet any use of conventional or nuclear weapons with an overwhelming and effective response.”
Military action is strongly opposed in South Korea because it would likely bear the brunt of any retaliation. North Korea has a huge amount of conventional artillery lined up on its side of the DMZ, capable of reaching greater Seoul, a metropolitan area of more than 20 million people just 30 miles from the border.
The fear of devastation in Seoul — and the risk to the American troops based in and around the South Korean capital — has long restrained U.S. administrations from striking North Korea.
To protect South Korea from North Korean missiles, the conservative government of former president Park Geun-hye agreed in July to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense(THAAD) system.
The plan has been controversial in South Korea, with some worried that it would make the South more of a target for North Korean missiles, and others concerned about the economic revenge being exacted by China.
The front-runner to replace Park in a snap presidential election to be held May 9, progressive politician Moon Jae-in, has promised to review the previous government’s decision to host THAAD.
Apparently sensing a worsening political environment, the U.S. military sped up the deployment to try to get everything in place before the election.
Hwang, the acting president until the election, said South Korea would “ensure the early deployment and operation” of the THAAD system.
He described the relationship as one of “totally seamless cooperation.”
Beijing strongly objects to the THAAD system because it worries that the United States will use the anti-missile batteries’ associated radar to snoop on China. China has imposed a painful economic boycott on South Korean exports and is making life difficult for South Korean companies in China.
Pence said the United States would press ahead with the THAAD deployment and chastised China for its efforts to pressure South Korea to change its mind.
“The United States is troubled by China’s economic retaliation against South Korea for taking appropriate steps to defend itself,” he said. “The better path would be for China to address the North Korean threat that is actually making such defensive measures necessary.”
This is tricky for Washington, requiring the Trump administration to ask Beijing to crack down on North Korea while also accepting the THAAD deployment.
Trump, who hosted his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping, in Florida this month and has talked to him again more recently, has repeatedly tweeted that if China does not act on North Korea, the United States will.
Pence reiterated that Monday.
“While issues like [THAAD] remain, the president and I have great confidence that China will properly deal with North Korea, but as President Trump made clear just a few short days ago, if China is unable to deal with North Korea, the United States and our allies will,” the vice president said.
Separately, South Korean prosecutors indicted Park on Monday, paving the way for the disgraced former president to go to trial on charges including bribery, extortion and abuse of power.