SEOUL — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis visited the border of North Korea on Friday, calling anew for "the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula" while drawing a contrast between life in the two Koreas.
"To the south lies a vibrant country, a vibrant economy, a free country, and it's underpinned by peace-loving members of a free society," Mattis said. "Behind me to the north, an oppressive regime that shackles its people, denying their freedom, their welfare and their human dignity in pursuit of nuclear weapons and the means of delivery, in order to threaten others with catastrophe."
The secretary, speaking alongside South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-Moo, added that North Korea has carried out "reckless, outlaw behavior," and that the United States and South Korea are "are serious about solving this problem."
Mattis visited the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two countries after months of provocations by the North Korean military, including the launch of a ballistic missile over Japan and an underground nuclear test Sept. 3. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's regime has threatened to carry out a hydrogen bomb test over the Pacific, an even more striking event that would grab worldwide attention.
Senior U.S. officials have raised concerns about North Korea for decades, but the recent provocations — and clear signs that the Kim regime is making progress in its goal to build an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead — have put world leaders on edge.
The standoff grew increasingly tense as Kim and President Donald Trump exchanged a series of insults and threats over the summer. Trump threatened to rain "fire and fury" upon Pyongyang if it continues to threaten the United States and taunted Kim as "Rocket Man." Kim's regime threatened to fire missiles toward the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam before ultimately deciding in August not to do so.
The rhetoric has cooled since, but U.S. officials and their allies, especially in South Korea and Japan, continue to watch North Korea closely. After a flurry of military activity this year, the regime has not carried out a missile test since Sept. 15. However, it is broadly accepted that another test could occur at any time.
Mattis is in Seoul for a meeting today with senior South Korean defense officials, and arrived as Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also was in South Korea to meet with his counterparts.