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[SEOUL] United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the US wasn't interested in "regime change" in North Korea as American warships were diverted to waters near the country amid heightened tensions over its nuclear weapons programme.
While the US wants a denuclearised Korean peninsula, it has "no objective to change the regime in North Korea," Mr Tillerson said on Sunday on This Week programme. The country must stop all weapons testing before further diplomatic talks can take place, he said.
Kim Jong Un's regime "has made significant advancements in delivery systems, and that is what concerns us the most," Mr Tillerson said. When asked what message North Korea should take from the US strike on Syria last week, he said: "If you become a threat to others, at some point a response is likely to be undertaken."
Tensions are rising in the region as President Donald Trump seeks to prevent North Korea from acquiring the capability to strike targets in the continental US with a nuclear weapon. He has threatened to act unilaterally if China - North Korea's main ally and benefactor - fails to do more to curb its neighbour's activities.
The strike group sailing north includes the USS Carl Vinson, several guided-missile destroyers and a guided-missile cruiser, according to a statement on the Navy's website. It had been scheduled to sail to Australia from Singapore.
"US Pacific Command ordered the Carl Vinson strike group north as a prudent measure to maintain readiness and presence in the Western Pacific," Pacific Command spokesman Dave Benham said on Sunday.
"Third Fleet ships operate forward with a purpose: to safeguard US interests in the Western Pacific," he said. "The No. 1 threat in the region continues to be North Korea, due to its reckless, irresponsible and destabilising programme of missile tests and pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability."
National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, appearing on Fox News Sunday, said the diversion of the vessels toward the Korean Peninsula was a "prudent" move.
"North Korea has been engaged in a pattern of provocative behaviour," Mr McMaster said. "This is a rogue regime that is now a nuclear-capable regime."
RANGE OF OPTIONS
Mr McMaster said Mr Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed at their summit in Florida that "what must happen is the de-nuclearisation of the Korean peninsula."
Mr Trump "has asked us to be prepared to give him a full range of options to remove that threat," Mr McMaster said.
Mr Trump also sent a message to North Korea and its ally China during his meeting with the Chinese president that he was willing to take action over Kim's nuclear programme, said Lee Ho Ryung, chief of North Korean studies at the Korea Institute for Defence Analysis.
"The US is proving itself that it can really take action if you play with chemical weapons like Syria," Mr Lee said.
North Korea conducted another ballistic missile test on Wednesday, shortly before Mr Xi and Mr Trump met.
Kim has said previously his regime was close to developing a ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to North America, and has threatened to conduct preemptive strikes on the US and its allies if it believed an attack was imminent.
The US missile strikes against Syria last week were "absolutely unpardonable," according to a Korean Central News Agency report citing a foreign ministry spokesman. North Korea will bolster its capacity to protect itself from "reckless moves," the spokesman was quoted as saying.