U.S., allies weigh options after North Korea's missile test: Trump adviser

By Lucia Mutikani and Sue-Lin Wong
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks during an Easter fellowship dinner at a military base in Seoul, South Korea, April 16, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Lucia Mutikani and Sue-Lin Wong

WASHINGTON/PYONGYANG (Reuters) - The United States, its allies and China are working together on a range of responses to North Korea's latest failed ballistic missile test, U.S. President Donald Trump's national security adviser said on Sunday, citing what he called an international consensus to act.

H.R. McMaster indicated that Trump was not considering military action for now.

"It's time for us to undertake all actions we can, short of a military option, to try to resolve this peacefully," he said on ABC's "This Week" program. "We are working together with our allies and partners and with the Chinese leadership to develop a range of options."

McMaster added: "There is an international consensus now, including the Chinese leadership, that this is a situation that just cannot continue."

The Trump administration is focusing its North Korea strategy on tougher economic sanctions, possibly including an oil embargo, a global ban on its airline, intercepting cargo ships and punishing Chinese banks doing business with Pyongyang, Reuters reported last week, citing U.S. officials.

While Trump has employed tough rhetoric in response to North Korea's recent missile tests, the new U.S. president's options appear limited in dealing with a challenge that has vexed his Oval Office predecessors.

Most options fall into four categories: economic sanctions, covert action, diplomatic negotiations and military force.

The North Korean missile blew up almost immediately after its test launch on Sunday, the U.S. Pacific Command said.

Hours later, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence landed in South Korea for talks on the North's increasingly defiant arms program. His visit came a day after North Korea held a military parade in its capital, Pyongyang, marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of founding father Kim Il Sung. What appeared to be new long-range ballistic missiles were on display in the parade.

RISING TENSIONS

Tensions have risen as Trump takes a hard rhetorical line with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who has rebuffed admonitions from China and proceeded with nuclear and missile programs seen by Washington as a direct threat.

Trump acknowledged on Sunday that the softer line he had taken on China's management of its currency was linked to China's help on the North Korea issue.

"Why would I call China a currency manipulator when they are working with us on the North Korean problem? We will see what happens!" Trump said on Twitter. Trump has backed away from a campaign promise to label China in that way.

South Korea said the North's latest show of force "threatened the whole world."

But a U.S. foreign policy adviser traveling with Pence on Air Force Two sought to defuse some of the tension, saying the test of what was believed to be a medium-range missile had come as no surprise.

"We had good intelligence before the launch and good intelligence after the launch," the adviser told reporters on condition of anonymity.

"It's a failed test. It follows another failed test. So really no need to reinforce their failure. We don't need to expend any resources against that."The adviser said the missile's flight lasted four or five seconds.

Pence, addressing an Easter service with American troops in South Korea, said the U.S. commitment to South Korea was unwavering.

"Let me assure you under President Trump's leadership, our resolve has never been stronger. Our commitment to this historic alliance with the courageous people of South Korea has never been stronger."

Pence was beginning a 10-day trip to Asia in what his aides said was a sign of U.S. commitment to its ally in the face of mounting tension.

The U.S. nuclear-powered Carl Vinson aircraft carrier strike group is also heading to the region. (http://tmsnrt.rs/2p1yGTQ)

China, which Trump has urged to do more to rein in North Korea, has spoken out against its weapons tests and has supported U.N. sanctions. It has repeatedly called for talks while appearing increasingly frustrated with the North.

Beijing banned imports of North Korean coal on Feb. 26, cutting off its most important export. China's customs department issued an order on April 7 telling traders to return North Korean coal cargoes, said trading sources with knowledge of the order.

'HOSTILE REGIME'

Trump's decision to order a cruise missile strike on a Syrian airfield this month, in response to what he said was Syria's use of chemical weapons, raised questions about his plans for reclusive North Korea.

Pyongyang has conducted several missile and nuclear tests in defiance of U.N. sanctions, and regularly threatens to destroy South Korea and the United States.

"The president has made clear that he will not accept the United States and its allies and partners in the region being under threat from this hostile regime with nuclear weapons," McMaster told ABC.

But McMaster, who was speaking from Kabul, Afghanistan, acknowledged the likelihood of North Korean retaliation if Washington uses military force in an attempt to stop its weapons programs.

"What (is) particularly difficult about - about dealing with this regime, is that it is unpredictable," he said.

South Korea, which hosts 28,500 U.S. troops and holds a presidential election on May 9, warned of punitive action if the Sunday launch led to further provocation.

Impoverished North Korea and the rich, democratic South are technically still at war because their 1950-1953 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.

The North has warned of a nuclear strike against the United States if provoked. It has said it has developed and would launch a missile that can strike the mainland United States, but officials and experts believe it is some time away from mastering the necessary technology, including miniaturizing a nuclear warhead.

North Korea launched a ballistic missile from the same region this month, ahead of a summit between the United States and China in Florida to discuss the North's arms program.

That missile, which U.S. officials said appeared to be a liquid-fueled, extended-range Scud, only flew about 60 km (40 miles), a fraction of its range, before spinning out of control.

Tension had escalated sharply amid concern the North may conduct a sixth nuclear test or a ballistic missile test around Saturday's celebration of Kim Il Sung's birthday, which it calls the "Day of the Sun."

In Pyongyang, there was a festive atmosphere at a flower show, with families out, taking pictures with North Korean-made smartphones. There was no mention of the test failure by the KCNA state news agency.

Company worker Rim Chung Ryol, 30, said he had not heard of the test.

"If it is a failure, then failure is the mother of success," he told Reuters.

Factory worker Ri Gul Chol, 37, also had not heard about the missile test.

"But whatever Kim Jong Un decides and instructs will succeed and all the citizens will support him," he said.

(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton and Ju-min Park in SEOUL, Joseph Campbell and Philip Wen in DANDONG, Christian Shepherd in BEIJING, Daniel Trotta in NEW YORK and Caren Bohan in WASHINGTON; Writing by Nick Macfie and Warren Strobel; Editing by Diane Craft and Peter Cooney)