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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Mattis says US is not seeking war with North Korea

US defence secretary's remarks come ahead of a visit to South Korea by Donald Trump

The US secretary of defence Jim Mattis and South Korean defence minister Song Young-moo, left, visit Observation Post Ouellette in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea on October 27, 2017. Jung Yeon-je / AFP
The US secretary of defence Jim Mattis and South Korean defence minister Song Young-moo, left, visit Observation Post Ouellette in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea on October 27, 2017. Jung Yeon-je / AFP

The United States is not seeking a war with North Korea, US defence secretary Jim Mattis said Friday during a visit to the heavily-fortified border between the two Koreas.

Tension has flared on the Korean peninsula as US president Donald Trump and the North's ruler Kim Jong-un have traded threats of war and personal insults that sparked global alarm.

But Mr Mattis, visiting the Demilitarised Zone between North and South Korea, said the US was committed to a "diplomatic solution".

"As the US secretary of state Tillerson made clear, our goal is not war but rather the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula," he said in the border village of Panmunjom, where a truce between the two Koreas was signed in 1953.

Mr Mattis said that he and the South Korean defence minister Song Young-moo had "made clear our mutual commitment to a diplomatic solution to address North Korea's reckless, outlaw behaviour".

The remarks came a day after he said Washington was "not rushing to war" and was looking for a "peaceful resolution".

Mr Mattis is to hold annual defence talks with Mr Song on Saturday during a two-day trip that comes ahead of a visit by the US president.

Mr Trump is scheduled to visit South Korea, a key US ally in Asia, from November 7 to 8, with all eyes on his message to the North and its leader.

North Korea carried out its sixth nuclear test last month and has launched several missiles in recent months that could reach the mainland of its "imperialist enemy" the US.

The moves, staged in violation of UN resolutions banning the North from any use of atomic and ballistic technology, prompted new US-led UN sanctions against the isolated state.

Pyongyang reacted angrily to the new sanctions, and Mr Trump's recent remark that "only one thing will work" with the North fuelled concerns of a potential conflict.

But even some Trump advisers say US military options are limited when Pyongyang could launch an artillery barrage on the South Korean capital Seoul — only about 50 kilometres from the border and home to 10 million people.

Mr Song said the nuclear devices and missiles that North Korea was developing were "unusable weapons", and that any use of them "will be strongly retaliated by the united forces of South Korea and the US".

"We strongly call for North Korea to stop its reckless provocations and come to the inter-Korean dialogue for peace as soon as possible," he said.

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In a rare gesture ahead of Mr Mattis’s visit, North Korea said it planned to return on Friday a South Korean fishing boat and crew captured last week. Pyongyang notified Seoul of its intention through a report carried by its official Korean Central News Agency as all inter-Korean communication lines have been cut off, South Korea’s unification ministry said.

If returned, this would be the first repatriation of South Korean citizens by North Korea since 2010, a ministry spokesman 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 North Korean waters, but Pyongyang would return them "from the humanitarian point of view".

Separately, the US treasury department added seven 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 labour operations,” treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin said.