TOKYO – From two continents, top Trump administration officials warned Tuesday that North Korea’s latest failed missile launch was a reckless act of provocation and assured allies in Asia that the United States was ready to work to achieve a peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
While Defense Secretary Jim Mattis denounced North Korea’s weapons test as he began a Mideast tour, Vice President Mike Pence offered support to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo amid a trip dominated by concerns about the rogue state’s nuclear intentions.
“We appreciate the challenging times in which the people of Japan live with increasing provocations from across the Sea of Japan,” Pence said after arriving from Seoul for talks with Abe. “We are with you 100 percent.”
At the outset of their meeting, Pence reiterated to Abe his statement in South Korea that the United States has run out of patience with Pyongyang’s moves.
“While all options are on the table,” Pence said, “President Trump is determined to work closely with Japan, with South Korea, with all our allies in the region, and with China” to resolve the problem.
“We seek peace always as a country, as does Japan, but as you know and the United States knows, peace comes through strength and we will stand strongly with Japan and strongly with our allies for a peace and security in this region,” Pence added.
Said Abe, “It goes without saying that it is a matter of paramount importance for us to seek diplomatic efforts as well peaceable settlements of the issue.”
“But at the same time,” the prime minister said, “dialogue for the sake of dialogue is valueless and it is necessary for us to exercise pressure North Korea so that it comes forward and engages in this serious dialogue.”
Mattis struck an even tougher tone on North Korea in an interview with reporters traveling with him to Saudi Arabia. His language was stronger than in a written statement he issued shortly after the launch, in which he simply said he was aware of the failure.
“The leader of North Korea again recklessly tried to provoke something by launching a missile,” he said. The term “reckless” is one the North Koreans have used to describe ongoing large-scale U.S. and South Korean military exercises, which the North calls a dress rehearsal for an invasion.
Mattis did not identify the type of missile but said it was not of intercontinental range, meaning it could not reach U.S. territory. He did not comment on what might have caused the missile to fail.
Another official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss an intelligence matter, said the missile was a Scud variant that the U.S. calls a KN-17.
Mattis credited China with trying to help get the North Korea situation “under control” with the goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.
President Donald Trump in Washington and Pence at the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea have signaled a forceful U.S. stance on North Korea’s recent actions. But no one was predicting what might come next.
Behind the heated rhetoric, Trump’s strategy in the region looks somewhat similar to predecessor Barack Obama’s — albeit with the added unpredictability of a new president who has shown he’s willing to use force.
Pence on Monday had traveled to the tense zone dividing the two Koreas, where he warned North Korea’s leaders that after years of testing the U.S. and South Korea with its nuclear ambitions, “the era of strategic patience is over.”
The unannounced visit at the start of Pence’s 10-day trip to Asia was a U.S. show of force that allowed him to gaze at North Korean soldiers from afar and stare directly across a border marked by razor wire. As the brown bomber jacket-clad vice president was briefed near the military demarcation line, two North Korean soldiers watched from a short distance away, one taking multiple photographs of the American visitor.
Pence told reporters Monday that Trump was hopeful China would use its “extraordinary levers” to pressure the North to abandon its weapons program. But Pence expressed impatience with the unwillingness of the regime to move toward ridding itself of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters he hopes “there will be no unilateral actions like those we saw recently in Syria and that the U.S. will follow the line that President Trump repeatedly voiced during the election campaign.”
China made a plea for a return to negotiations. Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said tensions need to be eased on the Korean Peninsula to bring the escalating dispute to a peaceful resolution. Lu said Beijing wants to resume the multi-party negotiations that ended in stalemate in 2009 and suggested that U.S. plans to deploy a missile defense system in South Korea were damaging its relations with China.
Burns reported from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. AP reporter Jonathan Lemire reported from New York.
Follow Ken Thomas on Twitter at https://twitter.com/KThomasDC and Burns at http://twitter.com/@robertburnsAP