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Pence lands at Korean DMZ day after North Korea's failed missile test
[CAMP BONIFAS, South Korea] US Vice-President Mike Pence, pledging an "unshakeable" commitment to South Korea, landed at a US military base next to the demilitarised border with North Korea, a day after a failed missile launch by the North.
Mr Pence flew to South Korea on the first stop of a four-nation Asia tour intended to show America's allies - and remind its adversaries - that the Trump administration is not turning its back on the increasingly volatile region.
The demilitarised zone (DMZ) is a heavily mined, four-km-wide strip of land lined with barbed wire running across the Korean peninsula, with soldiers on both sides in a continual eyeball-to-eyeball standoff.
Mr Pence, whose father served in the 1950-53 Korean War, said he was humbled to be at the DMZ and hailed the alliance with South Korea. "It is a testament to the unshakeable bond between our people," he said.
The United States, its allies and China are working together on a range of responses to North Korea's latest failed ballistic missile test, US President Donald Trump's national security adviser said on Sunday, citing what he called an international consensus to act.
HR McMaster indicated that Mr Trump was not considering military action for now, even as a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier strike group was heading for the region.
"It's time for us to undertake all actions we can, short of a military option, to try to resolve this peacefully," he said on ABC's This Week programme. "We are working together with our allies and partners and with the Chinese leadership to develop a range of options." "There is an international consensus now, including the Chinese leadership, that this is a situation that just cannot continue," Mr McMaster said.
The Trump administration is focusing its North Korea strategy on tougher economic sanctions, possibly including an oil embargo, a global ban on its airline, intercepting cargo ships and punishing Chinese banks doing business with Pyongyang, Reuters reported last week, citing US officials.
While Mr Trump has employed tough rhetoric in response to North Korea's recent missile tests, the new US president's options appear limited in dealing with a challenge that has vexed his Oval Office predecessors.
Most options fall into four categories: economic sanctions, covert action, diplomatic negotiations and military force.
The North Korean missile blew up almost immediately after its test launch on Sunday, the US Pacific Command said.
Hours later, Mr Pence landed for talks on the North's increasingly defiant arms programme.
His visit came a day after North Korea held a military parade in its capital, Pyongyang, marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of founding father Kim Il Sung. What appeared to be new long-range ballistic missiles were on display in the parade.
"WE'LL SEE WHAT HAPPENS"
Tensions have risen as Mr Trump takes a hard rhetorical line with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who has rebuffed admonitions from China and proceeded with nuclear and missile programmes seen by Washington as a direct threat.
Mr Trump acknowledged on Sunday that the softer line he had taken on China's management of its currency was linked to Beijing's help on the North Korea issue. "Why would I call China a currency manipulator when they are working with us on the North Korean problem? We will see what happens!" Mr Trump said on Twitter. Trump has backed away from a campaign promise to label China in that way.
South Korea said the North's latest show of force "threatened the whole world".
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe urged North Korea to refrain from taking further provocative actions, comply with UN resolutions and abandon its nuclear missile development.
"Japan will closely cooperate with the US and South Korea over North Korea and will call for China to take a bigger role," Mr Abe told parliament.
However, a US foreign policy adviser travelling with Pence sought to defuse some of the tension, saying Sunday's test of what was believed to be a medium-range missile had come as no surprise.
"We had good intelligence before the launch and good intelligence after the launch," the adviser told reporters on condition of anonymity.
China has spoken out against the North's weapons tests and has supported UN sanctions. It has repeatedly called for talks while appearing increasingly frustrated with the North.
Beijing banned imports of North Korean coal on Feb 26, cutting off Pyongyang's most important export. China's customs department issued an order on April 7 telling traders to return North Korean coal cargoes, trading sources said.
Mr Trump's decision to order a cruise missile strike on a Syrian airfield this month, in response to what he said was Syria's use of chemical weapons, raised questions about his plans for reclusive North Korea.
Pyongyang has conducted several missile and nuclear tests in defiance of UN sanctions, and regularly threatens to destroy South Korea and the United States. Impoverished North Korea and the rich, democratic South are technically still at war because their 1950-1953 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
"The president has made clear that he will not accept the United States and its allies and partners in the region being under threat from this hostile regime with nuclear weapons," Mr McMaster told ABC.
But Mr McMaster, who was speaking from Afghanistan, acknowledged the likelihood of North Korean retaliation if Washington used military force in an attempt to stop its weapons programmes, describing the Pyongyang regime as "unpredictable".
The North has warned of a nuclear strike against the United States if provoked. It has said it has developed and would launch a missile that can strike the US mainland, but officials and experts believe it is some time away from mastering the necessary technology, including miniaturising a nuclear warhead.