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Mattis pushes for diplomacy with North Korea during DMZ visit

North Korean soldiers look across the border near the Military Demarcation Line at Panmunjom, South Korea, Friday, Oct. 27, 2017.

MARCUS FICHTL/STARS AND STRIPES

By KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 27, 2017

PANMUNJOM, South Korea — With North Korean soldiers watching his every move, the U.S. defense secretary pressed for diplomacy with the communist state on Friday but insisted it must stop provocations and abandon its nuclear weapons program.

Jim Mattis also expressed solidarity with South Korea during a visit to the Demilitarized Zone that divides the peninsula, accusing the North of threatening others with a “catastrophe.”

“I’m here today to reinforce the United States’ ironclad commitment to the South Korean people,” he said, standing just a few feet away from the Military Demarcation Line that separates the two countries in the truce village of Panmunjom.

With his South Korean counterpart beside him, Mattis said “we stand shoulder to shoulder with you, with your soldiers and with your people in confronting the threat posed by the Kim Jong Un regime.”

Several North Korean soldiers stood guard or filmed him from the other side in the Joint Security Area. A tour group that appeared to include foreigners also observed the scene from the top balcony of North Korea’s main building there.

Within hearing range of the North Koreans, Mattis accused the regime of oppressing its people “in the pursuit of nuclear weapons and means of delivery in order to threaten others with catastrophe.”

South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo also warned North Korea against using nuclear and ballistic missiles, saying “if it does, it will face retaliation by the strong, combined force of South Korea and the U.S.”

Mattis later visited Observation Post Ouellette where he saw the barren no man’s land, a 2.5-mile wide, 150-mile long buffer zone that’s dotted with land mines and lined with barbed wire.

The former Marine general was meeting with South Korean officials this weekend for security talks on their longstanding alliance and how to deal with Pyongyang ahead of a planned visit by President Donald Trump next month.

Tensions have risen sharply over the past year and a half as North Korea increased the pace of its nuclear weapons program with the stated goal of developing a missile that could target the United States.

Trump, meanwhile, has made a series of bellicose statements including a warning that he’ll “totally destroy” the North if forced to defend the U.S. or its allies.

Mattis, who also met with President Moon Jae-in on Friday, has said he supports measures to achieve a diplomatic solution but military action remains on the table.

During his DMZ visit, however, he stressed support for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s efforts to use punishing economic sanctions and international pressure to get the North back to the negotiating table.

“North Korean provocations continue to threaten regional and world peace,” said Mattis, who was making his second trip to South Korea as defense secretary. “Our goal is not war, but rather the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

Earlier this week, Mattis met with defense ministers from Southeast Asia in the Philippines, where he said “we made clear our mutual commitment to a diplomatic solution.”

The Trump administration has bounced between threatening military action and pressing for talks with the North amid heated rhetoric from both sides.

The president tweeted earlier this month that Tillerson was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” his derogatory nickname for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

For its part, Pyongyang has insisted its nuclear weapons program is not up for negotiation. It also has made rapid progress with a series of missile tests and conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test on Sept. 3 despite several rounds of U.N. Security Council sanctions.

Mattis arrived in Seoul earlier Friday and planned to co-chair a security meeting on Saturday with South Korean Defense Minister focusing on the longstanding alliance between the two countries and the crisis with North Korea.

The discussions are part of annual consultations on defense issues between the two countries that have been allies since the 1950-53 Korean War.

About 28,500 U.S. servicemembers are based in South Korea, which remains technically at war with the North after the three-year conflict ended with an armistice instead of a peace treaty.

Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, is also in Seoul for the weekend meetings.

“We look at things like missile defense, command and control, capability development, installation of linked systems,” as well as North Korea, Dunford told reporters traveling with him.

The South Korean military has said the issue of the transfer of U.S.-held wartime operational control of South Korean troops also was on the agenda.

The transfer was originally scheduled for 2012, then 2015, but the two sides agreed to an indefinite delay after the North Koreans conducted their third nuclear test in 2013.

gamel.kim@stripes.com
Twitter: @kimgamel

 

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo stare at North Korea near the Military Demarcation Line at Panmunjom, South Korea, Friday, Oct. 27, 2017.
MARCUS FICHTL/STARS AND STRIPES

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