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[WASHINGTON] Defence Secretary Jim Mattis warned that it would be "game on" for war if North Korea fired missiles that hit the US or its territories, including the Pacific island of Guam.
"It could escalate into war very quickly - yes, that's called war," Mr Mattis told reporters Monday at the Pentagon.
"If they shoot at the United States, I'm assuming they hit the United States - if they do that, then it's 'game on."'
Asked if he considers Guam part of the US, he said, "Yeah, it sure is."
About 7,000 US military personnel and their families are on Guam, an unincorporated US territory with a total population of 170,000. The strategic outpost is about 2,100 miles (3,400 kilometres) south-east of Pyongyang. After President Donald Trump warned that the US would unleash "fire and fury" if Kim Jong Un's regime continued to threaten nuclear war, North Korea outlined a plan to fire four intermediate-range ballistic missiles intended to land near Guam.
Mr Mattis was vague about what would happen if missiles were launched toward Guam but splashed into the sea. He said US surveillance would know whether the missiles would hit land within moments of their launch.
"I need a certain amount of ambiguity because I'm not going to tell them what I'm going to do in each case," Mr Mattis said.
Mr Mattis cautioned reporters not to portray his words as a virtual declaration of war. He said that "is up to the president, perhaps up to the Congress. The bottom line is we will defend the country from an attack."
The Associated Press reported Monday evening that the North Korean leader has been briefed by his military leaders on their plans for missile tests near Guam.
The typically blunt words from Mr Mattis came hours after the top US general reassured South Korea that a diplomatic solution to the tensions with North Korea over its rapidly developing nuclear arsenal was Mr Trump's priority.
Marine general Joseph Dunford, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, reaffirmed the US commitment to protect South Korea after a meeting with President Moon Jae-In, spokesman Park Su-Hyun told reporters in Seoul on Monday.
"Dunford told Moon everyone hopes to resolve the current situation without going to war," Mr Park said.
Other administration officials also have sought at least a temporary halt in the war of words between Mr Trump and Mr Kim, which sparked fears that a miscalculation could lead to an actual military conflict. Global stocks gained and volatility receded Monday as the prospect of war between the two countries appeared to cool.
European Union Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini called in a statement Monday for North Korea to "refrain from any further provocative action."
She said the EU "and its member states will strengthen their diplomatic work by reaching out" to the North and South Korea, the US, China, Russia and Japan.
'Willing to Negotiate'
In a joint commentary in the Wall Street Journal, Mr Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said "the US is willing to negotiate with Pyongyang," but appeared to reject China's "suspension-for-suspension" proposal, in which North Korea would halt further nuclear and missile tests in return for the US and South Korea simultaneously stopping joint military exercises in the region.
"Given the long record of North Korea's dishonesty in negotiations and repeated violations of international agreements, it is incumbent upon the regime to signal its desire to negotiate in good faith," they wrote.
"A sincere indication would be the immediate cessation of its provocative threats, nuclear tests, missile launches and other weapons tests."
Mr Mattis, who also sought last week to emphasise diplomatic efforts, said Monday that he wasn't trying to reignite tensions.
"It's not that I'm over here - Dr Strangelove," he said, but "you don't shoot at people in this world unless you want to bear the consequences".