Vice President Mike Pence heads to Seoul as North Korea tensions flare

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Vice President Mike Pence will travel to South Korea on Sunday in what his aides said was a sign of the U.S. commitment to its ally in the face of rising tensions over North Korea's nuclear program.

Pence's Seoul stop kicks off a long-planned 10-day trip to Asia - his first as vice president - and comes amid concerns that Pyongyang could soon conduct its sixth nuclear test.

President Donald Trump has warned against further provocations, sending an aircraft carrier group to the region as a show of force. His officials have been assessing tougher economic sanctions as well as military options to curb North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

RELATED: Inside North Korea's secretive missile program

11 PHOTOS
Inside North Korea's secretive missile program
See Gallery
Inside North Korea's secretive missile program
A missile is carried by a military vehicle during a parade to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the signing of a truce in the 1950-1953 Korean War, at Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang July 27, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Lee (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY ANNIVERSARY)
Engineers check the base of Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket sitting on a launch pad at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, during a guided media tour by North Korean authorities in the northwest of Pyongyang April 8, 2012. REUTERS/Bobby Yip (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY)
A North Korean scientist looks at a monitor showing the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket on a launch pad at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, at the satellite control centre of the Korean Committee of Space Technology on the outskirts of Pyongyang April 11, 2012. North Korea said on Wednesday it was injecting fuel into a long-range rocket ahead of a launch condemned by its neighbours and the West. The launch is set to take place between Thursday and next Monday and has prompted neighbours such as the Philippines to re-route their air traffic. REUTERS/Bobby Yip (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
A soldier stands guard in front of the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket sitting on a launch pad at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, during a guided media tour by North Korean authorities in the northwest of Pyongyang April 8, 2012. REUTERS/Bobby Yip (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
North Korean soldiers salute in a military vehicle carrying a missile during a parade to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the signing of a truce in the 1950-1953 Korean War, at Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang July 27, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Lee (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY ANNIVERSARY)
Ko Yun-hwa (L), Administrator of Korea Meteorological Administration, points at where seismic waves observed in South Korea came from, during a media briefing at Korea Meteorological Administration in Seoul, South Korea, January 6, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A sales assistant watches TV sets broadcasting a news report on North Korea's nuclear test, in Seoul, January 6, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Workers construct a new nuclear reactor in the North Korean village of Kumho in this file photo taken August 7, 2002. The United States urged North Korea December 21, 2002 not to restart a nuclear reactor suspected of being used to make weapons-grade plutonium. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said that North Korea had disabled surveillance devices the agency had placed at the five-megawatt Nyongbyong reactor. REUTERS/Lee Jae-won/File Photo LJW/RCS/AA
A passenger walks past a television report on North Korea's nuclear test at a railway station in Seoul February 12, 2013. North Korea conducted a nuclear test on Tuesday, South Korea's defence ministry said, after seismic activity measuring 4.9 magnitude was registered by the U.S. Geological Survey. The epicentre of the seismic activity, which was only one km below the Earth's surface, was close to the North's known nuclear test site. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji (SOUTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
A scientist stands beside the Kwangmyongsong-3 application satellite, to be put onto the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, during a guided media tour by North Korean authorities in the northwest of Pyongyang April 8, 2012. REUTERS/Bobby Yip (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY)
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

Pence plans to celebrate Easter with U.S. and Korean troops on Sunday before talks on Monday with acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn.

"We're going to consult with the Republic of Korea on North Korea's efforts to advance its ballistic missile and its nuclear program," a White House foreign policy adviser told reporters, previewing Pence's trip.

Pence will land in Seoul the day after North Korea's biggest national day, the "Day of the Sun." The White House has contingency plans for Pence's trip should it coincide with a another North Korean nuclear test by its leader Kim Jong Un, the adviser said.

"Unfortunately, it's not a new surprise for us. He continues to develop this program, he continues to launch missiles into the Sea of Japan," the adviser said.

SEE ALSO: House Democrat accuses President Trump of 'political blackmail'

"With the regime it's not a matter of if - it's when. We are well prepared to counter that," the adviser said.

'FREE AND FAIR' TRADE

Pence expects to talk about the "belligerence" of North Korea at stops in Tokyo, Jakarta and Sydney, the White House adviser said.

But the need for "free and fair trade" will also be a theme, the adviser said.

Trump campaigned on an "America First" trade policy, complaining that trade partners in Asia and elsewhere had taken advantage of the United States.

SEE ALSO: US may launch strike If North Korea reaches for nuclear trigger

One of his first acts in office was to remove the United States from the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal negotiated by former President Barack Obama.

"Withdrawing from the TPP shouldn't be seen as a retreat from the region. On the contrary, our economic presence in the region is enduring," the adviser said.

On Tuesday, Pence will kick off economic talks with Japan requested by Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The discussions will focus more on setting a "framework" for future talks rather than on specific industry issues, a White House official said.

Pence will meet with business leaders at each stop, including in Jakarta, though he was not expected to wade into the weedy details of disputes between the Indonesian government and U.S. companies like mining giant Freeport-McMoRan Inc <FCX.N>.

"We're going to discuss the business environment in Indonesia in a general sense," a White House official said.

Read Full Story

Sign up for Breaking News by AOL to get the latest breaking news alerts and updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Subscribe to our other newsletters

Emails may offer personalized content or ads. Learn more. You may unsubscribe any time.