Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his South Korean counterpart vowed that any nuclear attack from North Korea against the United States or the Republic of Korea would mean the end of the Kim Jong Un regime. The statement came hours after Pyongyang launched an intercontinental ballistic missile that raised tensions in the region.
Minister of National Defense Lee Jong-sup was in Washington on Thursday for previously scheduled high-level talks. Topping the agenda was the record number of launches by Pyongyang this week, including nearly two dozen missiles on Wednesday alone, the most in a single day. The North has said its latest display — which some see as a prelude to a new nuclear weapons test — is in protest to U.S.-South Korean military exercises it says are a threat to its security.
“This is a strong warning” against North Korea, Mr. Lee told reporters during a joint press conference at the Pentagon.
Mr. Austin noted that North Korea launched the missiles as South Koreans are mourning the loss of more than 150 Halloween revelers who were killed in a stampede in Seoul’s popular Itaewon district.
“It’s highly unfortunate that the [North Korea] has chosen to interrupt this solemn period with the illegal and destabilizing launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile last night, as well as additional missile launches today,” Mr. Austin said.
The North Korean missile launches prompted the U.S. and South Korea to extend the “Vigilant Storm” exercises, military drills involving more than 200 combat aircraft and thousands of troops. The maneuvers were scheduled to end on Friday.
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“We’ll continue to work closely together to develop options to protect the United States and our allies in the region,” Mr. Austin said.
The North has not tested a nuclear device since 2017, a test which infuriated the Trump administration but led in time to a surprising string of summits between Mr. Kim and President Trump. But the personal diplomacy broke down over what the U.S. said was the North’s unwillingness to commit to fully abandoning its nuclear program.
South Korea and the United States share values such as democracy, respect for human rights, and the rule of law, Mr. Lee said. He said both countries accomplished their security goals during this year’s defense summit meeting.
“We agree to further strengthen the alliance’s capabilities and postures,” Minister Lee said through a translator.
Mr. Austin said that, in the face of the Kim regime’s “provocations and destabilizing actions,” the U.S. remains fully committed to the defense of its South Korean ally.
“At this time of heightened tensions, our alliance is ironclad. That includes the full range of our nuclear, conventional, and missile defense capabilities,” Mr. Austin said.
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GOP leaders on Capitol Hill said North Korea is emboldened to take destabilizing measures like firing ICBMs at its neighbors because of the Biden administration’s “weakness on the world stage” and the support of Pyongyang’s ally in Beijing.
“North Korea’s aggression will continue until the White House shows King Jong Un that nuclear and ICBM belligerence doesn’t pay,” said Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the senior Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “I strongly urge the administration to put forward a strategy that supports our allies, [South Korea] and Japan, and begins dealing with Kim from a position of strength.”