WASHINGTON – U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis accused North Korea Tuesday of trying to recklessly “provoke something” with its latest missile test, and said the U.S. will work with China to reduce tensions.
Mattis said the Sunday test, which U.S. defense officials said failed and blew up almost immediately, was not an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), a weapon that could have the capability of reaching the continental U.S.
“It shows why we are working so closely right now with the Chinese… to try to get this under control and aim for the denuclearized Korean peninsula,” Mattis told reporters aboard his doomsday plane in route to Saudi Arabia.
President Donald Trump has said the U.S. and its allies are prepared to act alone to confront North Korea’s weapons program, if China is not willing to help. Trump tweeted Sunday that he had reversed course from his campaign pledge to label China a currency manipulator on day one of his presidency, in part becuase he is working with China to address the “North Korean problem.”
China has issued rebukes of North Korea’s weapons program, banned imports of North Korean coal on Feb. 26 — halting the country’s most important export — and Chinese state media has raised the possibility of stopping oil shipments to North Korea if provocations continue.
On Monday, Vice President Mike Pence warned North Korea to not test U.S. military resolve. Speaking from Seoul, he pointed to the recent U.S. attack on a Syrian government airbase and another against ISIS in Eastern Afghanistan as evidence that Trump is prepared to act militarily if deemed necessary.
However, the White House has said Trump does not have a “red line” when it comes to North Korea.
“He holds his card close to the vest, and I think you’re not going to see him telegraphing how he’s going to respond to any military or other situation going forward,” White Houe press secretary Sean Spicer said Monday. “That’s just something he believes that has not served us well in the past.”
North Korea has warned of nuclear war if provoked.
On Monday, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Han Song-ryol told the BBC that his country will “be conducting more missile tests on a weekly, monthly and yearly basis.”
Mattis is in Saudi Arabia for the first stop in what will be a week long trip across the Middle East and North Africa, where he will discuss ISIS and the Syrian civil war with U.S. allies.
Mattis said that the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition and Russia are in contact over their operations in Syria to avoid unintended collisions between the two parties.
“We continue to deconflict with the Russians for safety of flight to avoid any kind of misunderstanding or any kind of inadvertent running into each other, frankly, in the air, as we both work against targets in the same vicinity,” Mattis said.
After the U.S. targeted a Syrian airbase April 6 in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack, Russia said it would no longer use the established communications channel.
Asked Tuesday if the U.S. plans to send any additional aid to Saudi Arabia to turn the tides in the two-year running Yemeni civil war, as U.S. Central Command head Army Gen. Joseph Votel has recommended as a possibility, Mattis wouldn’t say.
“Our goal… is for that crisis down there, that ongoing fight, be put in front of a U.N.-brokered negotiating team and try to resolve this politically as soon as possible. It has gone on for a long time,” Mattis said.
“We see Iranian-supplied missiles being fired by the Houthis into Saudi Arabia. And this is something, with the number of innocent people dying inside Yemen, that has simply got to brought to an end.”
The U.S. is conducting counterterrorism operations and airstrikes against al-Qaeda militants in Yemen (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), while a small number of U.S forces are assisting the Saudi-led coalition fighting Iran-backed Houthis with limited intelligence and refueling support.
After a spate of Saudi-led coalition bombings that killed civilians in 2016, the Barack Obama administration looked to curb U.S. support for the Saudis in the civil war. Human rights groups and members of Congress at the time expressed concern that Saudi-led bombing campaign was indiscriminate.