With two feet planted firmly at the 38th parallel, US Defense Secretary James Mattis on Friday accused North Korea of building a nuclear arsenal to “threaten others with catastrophe, according to local media reports.
Mattis, who is visiting South Korea and a handful of regional allies before President Donald Trump decamps for his first Asia tour next week, visited the DMZ in a demonstration of solidarity with South Korea. At the border, he reaffirmed that the Trump administration wants to avoid war if possible and remains committed to forcing North Korea to disarm. The reason for Mattis’s visit? Meetings with South Korean counterpart Song Young-moo for talks about the deteriorating situation in North Korea. Bloomberg reported.
However, while he warned of North Korea's destructive capabilities, he also stressed that the US remains committed to finding a peaceful solution.
“Our goal is not war, but rather the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” Mattis said, as North Korean soldiers kept watch nearby.
His visit follows exercises last week involving the US and South Korean navies that featured the USS Ronald Reagan, an aircraft carrier, as well as three nuclear submarines. The unprecedented show of force elicited an outraged response from the North, which described the military drills as preparation for a pre-emptive strike and nuclear war against his country and badgered the UN Security Council to address them.
Trump is scheduled to depart a week from today on a trip that includes visits to Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. It will likely focus on the nuclear threat posed by the restive North and its leader, Kim Jong Un.
So far, Trump has refused to say if he will visit the DMZ during his trip to Korea. Even as it has stepped up its threats of a nuclear offensive, North Korea’s last missile launch was on Sept. 15., when it fired an intermediate-range missile over northern Japan. An expected test of a long-range ICBM to coincide with an Oct. 10 holiday and the Oct. 18 beginning of China’s National Party Congress failed to materialize.
However, Kim In Ryong, North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, said Oct. 16 that a nuclear war “may break out any moment” and that “the entire U.S. mainland is within our firing range." Another senior official told CNN this week that the world should take literally his country’s threat to test a nuclear weapon
South Korea’s military said this week that no particular signs beyond ordinary activities have been spotted, though North Korea continues to seek the capability to strike the U.S. with a nuclear weapon.
Reuters reported, above the faint sound of North Korean propaganda music being blasted from across the border, South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo warned about the North’s nuclear program and the array of conventional artillery positioned just across the border, and said South Korea’s defenses would not be able to stop a North Korean onslaught should war break out.
“Defending against this many LRAs (long-range artillery) is infeasible in my opinion,” Song told Mattis, citing a need for strategies to “offensively neutralize” the artillery in the event of a conflict.
Mattis replied: “Understood”.
Surprisingly, the North has made at least one major gesture of peace ahead of Mattis’s visit that could be a harbinger of talks between the US and the North – a possibility that Trump is once again encouraging after initially telling Secretary of State Rex Tillerson not to waste his time.
Case in point, North Korea returned on Friday a South Korean fishing boat and crew captured last week in a gesture that local media reports described as a 'humanitarian transfer.' Pyongyang notified Seoul via a report from its official Korean Central News Agency as all inter-Korean communication lines have been cut off, South Korea’s Unification Ministry spokesman Baik Tae-hyun said at a briefing.
Still, the US remains on high alert: Last week, CIA chief Mike Pompeo said North Korea could be only months away from developing the ability to hit the United States with nuclear weapons, a scenario Trump has vowed to prevent.