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(Bloomberg) -- In a visit to the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis on Friday accused North Korea of building a nuclear arsenal to “threaten others with catastrophe,” the Yonhap news agency reported.
Mattis pledged solidarity with U.S. ally South Korea, saying that President Donald Trump’s administration wants to avoid war if possible and remains committed to forcing North Korea to disarm, according to Yonhap.
The defense secretary is in South Korea for talks this weekend with counterpart Song Young-moo on a trip that comes ahead of Trump’s planned visit to the country early next month. They are set to discuss the bilateral defense alliance, including a timetable for returning wartime operational control to Seoul from Washington.
While a Trump visit to the DMZ hasn’t been ruled out by the White House, it could been seen as provocative -- North and South Korean soldiers stand feet part on either side of a line that marks the heavily fortified border. Tensions have eased in recent weeks during a brief halt in Pyongyang’s nuclear tests and missile launches. The reclusive nation’s last missile launch was on Sept. 15., an intermediate-range missile that flew over the northern Japan.
Making time to visit a U.S.-South Korean military observation post to peer into North Korea, Mattis was also briefed on conditions along the border created after a truce halted the Korean War in 1953.
Diplomacy should "start by addressing a fundamental issue at the heart of the problem: namely, that no peace treaty has ever been signed," Carl Bildt, former prime minister of Sweden, wrote in an article published Wednesday by Project Syndicate. "A dialogue to replace the 64-year-old armistice with a formal peace agreement could pave the way for broader discussions about nuclear escalation and other threats to regional stability."
Call for Talks
"The nuclear device and missiles that North Korea is developing are unusable weapons, and any use of them will be strongly retaliated by the united forces of South Korea and the U.S.," said South Korea’s Song, who accompanied Mattis on the trip. "We strongly call for North Korea to stop its reckless provocations and come to the inter-Korean dialogue for peace as soon as possible."
South Korea’s military said this week that no particular signs beyond ordinary activities have been spotted, though North Korea continues to seek the capability to strike the U.S. with a nuclear weapon.
Kim In Ryong, North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, said Oct. 16 that a nuclear war “may break out any moment” and that “the entire U.S. mainland is within our firing range." Another senior official told CNN this week that the world should take literally his country’s threat to test a nuclear weapon above ground.
In a rare gesture ahead of Mattis’s visit, North Korea plans to return on Friday a South Korean fishing boat and crew captured last week. Pyongyang notified Seoul via a report from its official Korean Central News Agency as all inter-Korean communication lines have been cut off, South Korea’s Unification Ministry spokesman Baik Tae-hyun said at a briefing.
If returned, this would be the first repatriation by North Korea of South Korean citizens since 2010, Baik said. South Korea has returned North Koreans crossing maritime borders on seven occasions since President Moon Jae-in took power in May.
KCNA said the crew "deliberately intruded" into its waters, but will return them "from the humanitarian point of view."
Separately, the U.S. Treasury Department added seven more individuals and three entities connected with the North Korean regime to its sanctions list.
“We also are targeting North Korean financial facilitators who attempt to keep the regime afloat with foreign currency earned through forced labor operations,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.
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