PANMUNJOM, South Korea, Sept 29 (Reuters) – U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris said North Korea is a country with a “brutal dictatorship”, an illegal arms programme and rampant human rights violations, issuing unusually strong criticism during a visit to the inter-Korean border on Thursday.
Harris, in her first visit to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas, said the heavily armed border area offered a stark reminder of the “dramatically different paths” the two sides have taken.
“In the North, we see a brutal dictatorship, rampant human rights violations and an unlawful weapons program that threatens peace and stability,” Harris said.
“The United States and the world seek a stable and peaceful Korean peninsula where the DPRK is no longer a threat,” she said, referring to North Korea by the initials of its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Harris was in the DMZ after arriving in the South Korean capital, Seoul, early on Thursday amid simmering regional tension over North Korea’s missile launches and China’s actions in the Taiwan Strait.
The visit by Harris to staunch U.S. ally South Korea comes amid fears that North Korea is about to conduct a nuclear test. South Korean officials say North Korea has completed preparations for what would be its seventh nuclear test since 2006, and its first since 2017.
Harris and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol held talks and condemned North Korea’s intensifying nuclear rhetoric and a series of missile tests, the latest of which was conducted on Wednesday.
“They condemned the DPRK’s provocative nuclear rhetoric and ballistic missile launches,” a White House statement said. “They discussed our response to potential future provocations, including through trilateral cooperation with Japan.”
Harris and Yoon reaffirmed a shared goal of the complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, the White House said.
Harris also reaffirmed a U.S.-extended deterrence commitment to its Asian ally, including “the full range of U.S. defence capabilities”, it added.
Yoon’s office said that if the North pushed ahead with serious provocations like a nuclear test, he and Harris had agreed to immediately implement “jointly prepared countermeasures”. It did not elaborate.
North Korea codified its right to use pre-emptive nuclear strikes in a new law early this month. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has said it is developing nuclear weapons and missiles to defend against U.S. threats.
On Taiwan, Harris underscored that efforts to preserve peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait were an “essential element of a free and open Indo-Pacific”, the White House said.
U.S. President Joe Biden’s aides have been shoring up alliances to manage China in the region, including over Taiwan.
But Yoon told CNN in an interview aired on Sunday that in a conflict over Taiwan, North Korea would be more likely to stage a provocation and Seoul and Washington should focus on that concern first.
COLD WAR BORDER
Aides said Harris’ DMZ visit, the first by a Biden administration official, was intended to show unwavering U.S. security commitment to South Korea.
The DMZ, regarded as the world’s last Cold War frontier, has existed since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a armistice, not a peace treaty.
The trip took on urgency after North Korea fired two short-range missiles off its east coast on Wednesday, the second test since Sunday, while South Korea and the United States are holding naval exercises involving an aircraft carrier.
The South Korean and Japanese navies said they would hold trilateral anti-submarine exercises with U.S. forces on Friday, designed to improve their , including its submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
The drills will involve warships including the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier, the USS Chancellorsville guided-missile cruiser, the USS Barry guided missile destroyer, South Korea’s Munmu the Great destroyer and Japan’s Asahi tanker.
Harris said in Japan, the first stop on her Asian tour, that North Korea’s missile launches were part of an “illicit weapons programme which threatens regional stability”.
Harris and Yoon also discussed changes in U.S. electric vehicle subsidies which South Korea fears could disadvantage its automakers.
In addition, Harris met a group of South Korean women leaders including Choi Soo-yeon, CEO of internet service provider Naver Corp 035420.KS; Youn Yuh-jung, an actress who won an Oscar for her role in “Minari”; Kim Yuna, an Olympic figure skating champion; and novelist Kim Sagwa.
A White House official said the women had “made strides in building a more inclusive and equitable society”.
(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt and Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Soo-hyang Choi and Jack Kim; Editing by Stephen Coates, Robert Birsel and Mark Heinrich)