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(2nd LD) U.S. VP Pence visits DMZ amid rising tensions

All Headlines 11:54 April 17, 2017

(ATTN: CHANGES headline, lead; UPDATES throughout with new info)

SEOUL, April 17 (Yonhap) -- U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on Monday visited the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas, in an apparent move to underscore the robust alliance with South Korea against the North's unrelenting saber-rattling.

Using a military chopper, Pence flew to Camp Bonifas, a U.S.-led United Nations Command unit, some 400 meters south of the DMZ, one of the most telling vestiges of inter-Korean division and military tensions.

The site carried personal meaning for the vice president, as his late father, Edward Pence, fought alongside South Korean troops during the 1950-53 Korean War.

"It is particularly humbling for me to be here," Pence was cited by media as saying. "My father served in the Korean War with the U.S. Army, and on the way here, we actually saw some of the terrain my father fought alongside Korean forces to help earn your freedom. "

Pence, then, visited a front-line observation post just 25 meters away from the military demarcation line.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence (C) visits Camp Bonifas, a U.S. military base close to the inter-Korean border on April 17, 2017. (Pool photo) (Yonhap)

Before his trip to the DMZ, Pence held talks with U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) Commander Gen. Vincent Brooks, the USFK said in a tweet without elaborating on the content of the "early morning meeting."

Pence began his three-day visit to South Korea -- the first leg of his four-nation tour of the Asia-Pacific region -- on Sunday afternoon, hours after Pyongyang's botched attempt to launch yet another ballistic missile.

In recent weeks, tensions have been rising here, with Pyongyang seen preparing for yet another nuclear test and Washington sending an aircraft carrier strike group to waters off the peninsula in a show of force against the unruly regime.

Later in the day, Pence was set to hold talks with South Korea's Acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn Monday over the bilateral security alliance and North Korea's escalating nuclear saber-rattling, Seoul officials said.

The meeting will begin at 1:30 p.m. at Hwang's official residence in Seoul, followed by a press conference where they will issue a joint statement expected to carry the allies' stern warning against possible provocations by Pyongyang, such as a nuclear test.

During their meeting, Hwang and Pence are expected to discuss bilateral cooperation in pressuring the North into changing tacks toward denuclearization through sanctions and diplomacy, observers said.

Pence is also likely to explain to Hwang the Trump administration's North Korea policy. Washington has reportedly decided to focus on "maximum pressure and engagement" to induce the North to denuclearize.

The Trump government is seen favoring a more aggressive approach to the North as it has claimed an end to its predecessor's policy of so-called "strategic patience," which critics say has failed to prevent the North from furthering its nuclear program.

Its recent military action in Syria and Afghanistan has fueled speculation that Washington could use force to cope with Pyongyang's relentless provocations. On April 7, the U.S. struck a Syrian air base to punish the Bashar al-Assad regime for a suspected chemical attack. Less than a week later, it dropped a massive bomb on an Islamic State complex in Afghanistan.

During their talks, Hwang and the vice president are also expected to reaffirm their agreement to install a U.S. missile defense battery in South Korea and call on Beijing to stop its economic retaliation against South Korea, observers said.

Following the talks with Hwang, Pence was set to meet with National Assembly Speaker Chung Sye-kyun.

Pence will leave for Japan on Tuesday. His trip includes visits to Indonesia and Australia.

This photo, taken on April 16, 2017, shows U.S. Vice President Mike Pence (2nd from R) and his wife Karen Pence paying respects to fallen soldiers at South Korea's national cemetery in Seoul. (Yonhap)

sshluck@yna.co.kr
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