US Vice President Mike Pence has arrived in South Korea amid rising concerns that the simmering tensions on the Korean Peninsula would eventually turn into a full-scale military confrontation between the United States and North Korea.
Pence arrived in the country on Sunday at the start of a 10-day trip to Asia and hours after a North Korean missile "blew up almost immediately" on its test launch earlier in the day.
Pence will meet with leaders in South Korea and Japan to possibly discuss ways to counter Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs as well as matters related to the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system to South Korea .
He is also planning to reassure South Korean and Japanese officials that Washington will defend them against North Korea.
Upon his arrival in South Korea, Pence attended a brief ceremony at Seoul National Cemetery. He was expected to go to church along with US and South Korean troops for Easter Sunday services followed by a dinner later in the day.
Washington has expressed profound concern over North Korea’s nuclear program, which Pyongyang argues is a deterrent against a possible military invasion by Washington or its ally Seoul.
On Friday, the White House said during an official briefing, “The Vice President is going to underscore intent — we’re going to continue to consult with the Republic of Korea on North Korea’s efforts to advance its ballistic missile and its nuclear program.”
Pence will also explain a US policy dubbed "maximum pressure and engagement," according to which Washington will increase pressure on Pyongyang with the help of Beijing.
China is a traditional ally of North Korea, but it has voted in favor of UN sanctions over Pyongyang's missile and nuclear tests.
US President Donald Trump has been seeking Beijing's help in denuclearizing Pyongyang, threatening to act alone if China is not willing to offer assistance in this regard.
Trump has warned of a tougher stance, saying "North Korea is a problem. The problem will be taken care of."
The United States is moving an aircraft supercarrier toward the Korean Peninsula in a show of force, which the North sees as Washington's intention to declare war.
“The US introduces into the Korean Peninsula, the world’s biggest hotspot, huge nuclear strategic assets, seriously threatening peace and security of the peninsula and pushing the situation there to the brink of a war,” the North Koran Foreign Ministry said on Friday.
This is the third visit to South Korea by a top official from the Trump administration. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited the country in February and March respectively.
As part of his tour of Asia, Pence will also travel to Indonesia and Australia.