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US vice president arrives in Korea amid escalating tension

U.S. Vice President Mark Pence, second from right, along with his wife Karen, two daughters and U.S. Forces Korea Commander Gen. Vincent Brooks, left, walk toward a memorial altar to pay their respects at the National Cemetery in Dongjak-dong, Seoul, Sunday. South Korea is the first leg of Pence's four-nation trip that will also include Japan, Indonesia and Australia, lasting until April 25. / Yonhap

By Yi Whan-woo

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence arrived at the U.S. air base in Osan, Gyeonggi Province, Sunday, kicking off a three-day visit to South Korea amid heightened tension on the Korean Peninsula.

After arriving, he visited the National Cemetery in Dongjak-dong, Seoul, and spent the rest of Easter Sunday with American troops, their families and South Korean military personnel.

"Pence attended a worship service with U.S. soldiers and had Easter Sunday dinner with them," a Ministry of Foreign Affairs official said.

From Monday to Tuesday, Pence is scheduled to meet acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn and National Assembly Speaker Chung Sye-kyun.

He also plans to visit the Demilitarized Zone and deliver a speech at the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea before wrapping up his tour here. This is his first stop on a four-leg trip to the Asia-Pacific region, including Japan, Indonesia and Australia.

Pence is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit South Korea under the Donald Trump administration. South Korea is also the first Asian country he has traveled to as vice president.

His trip is expected to send a strong warning to North Korea on its cycle of nuclear and ballistic missile tests, while reaffirming Washington's commitment to the security alliance with Seoul, according to analysts.

They said Pence's visit may help placate escalating concerns over a possible war on the peninsula as the Trump administration is stepping up its saber-rattling toward the Kim Jong-un regime, and Pyongyang has pledged to "hit back" against any U.S. attacks.

The tension on the peninsula has surged to fresh heights as the Trump administration, which recently settled on "maximum pressure and engagement" on North Korea, has been stepping up its show of force against the Kim regime.

The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and its strike group is heading back to the peninsula although it was initially scheduled to head to Australia after finishing the Foal Eagle military exercise in South Korea.

North Korea angrily responded Saturday saying, "We're prepared to respond to an all-out war with an all-out war and we are ready to hit back with nuclear attacks of our own style against any nuclear attacks."

It also displayed missiles during a military parade that day marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of its founding leader Kim Il-sung. On Sunday, it attempted to fire an unidentified ballistic missile.

Against this backdrop, Pence and Hwang are expected to discuss how to bolster the two allies' joint pressure on the North to stop its nuclear ambitions, diplomatic sources said.

They are likely to urge China to exercise more leverage on North Korea, while reaffirming a plan to deploy a U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense battery in South Korea, despite Beijing's opposition.

Regarding concerns over Seoul being alienated from multinational talks over Pyongyang, Hwang and Pence may put these to rest and promise that the two allies will continue to work closely on North Korea policies.

In addition, Pence may give assurances that the U.S. nuclear umbrella for its allies will remain intact.

"Although the Trump administration has threatened to launch a preemptive attack on North Korea, it apparently wants China to press the North first and see how things develop," said Koh You-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University. "And Pence's presence here may help reassure the public that a war is not among the first options it wants concerning North Korea. I think Pence can soothe concerns over a war to some extent during his stay here."

Pence will leave for Tokyo, Tuesday, for another three-day visit. He will then tour Indonesia and Australia before heading back home April 25.

Prior to Pence's visit, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited South Korea.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and his wife Karen Sue Pence wave as they step out of their plane that arrived at the U.S. air base in Osan, Gyeonggi Province, Sunday. South Korea is the first leg of Pence's four-nation trip that also includes Japan, Indonesia and Australia, lasting until April 25. / Yonhap
Yi Whan-woo

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