North Korea threat is 'critical and imminent,' Japan tells U.S., South Korea

CLARK FREEPORT ZONE, Philippines (Reuters) - The threat from North Korea has grown to a “critical and imminent level” and the United States, Japan and South Korea must address the matter, Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera told his U.S. and South Korean counterparts in talks on Monday.

Onodera’s remarks underscored the deep concern in Tokyo after North Korean weapons tests, including test firing missiles over Japan, as Pyongyang seeks to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the United States.

His comments broke from more measured language on Monday by U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-Moo, as the three men met on the sidelines of a gathering of Asian defense chiefs in the Philippines.

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The scene of the intermediate-range ballistic missile Pukguksong-2's launch test in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) May 22, 2017. KCNA/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT.
The long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 (Mars-12) is launched during a test in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 15, 2017. KCNA via REUTERS REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT.
Missiles are driven past the stand with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and other high ranking officials during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of North Korea's founding father, Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang, April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Sue-Lin Wong
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects the long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 (Mars-12) in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 15, 2017. KCNA via REUTERS REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
People cheer as a missile is driven past the stand with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and other high ranking officials during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Military vehicles carry missiles with characters reading 'Pukkuksong' during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father, Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un supervised a ballistic rocket launching drill of Hwasong artillery units of the Strategic Force of the KPA on the spot in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang March 7, 2017. KCNA/via REUTERSATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. NOT FOR USE BY REUTERS THIRD PARTY DISTRIBUTORS. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SOUTH KOREA. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A fire drill of ballistic rockets by Hwasong artillery units of the KPA Strategic Force is pictured in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang September 6, 2016. KCNA/via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS.
FILE PHOTO - An underwater test-firing of a strategic submarine ballistic missile is seen in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on April 24, 2016. KCNA/File Photo via REUTERS. ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. SOUTH KOREA OUT.
A view of a firing contest among multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) batteries selected from large combined units of the KPA, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on December 21, 2016. KCNA/via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS.
Ballistic rocket is seen launching during a drill by the Hwasong artillery units of the KPA Strategic Force in this undated picture provided by KCNA in Pyongyang on July 21, 2016. KCNA/via ReutersATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. NOT FOR USE BY REUTERS THIRD PARTY DISTRIBUTORS.Ã TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A test launch of ground-to-ground medium long-range ballistic rocket Hwasong-10 in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on June 23, 2016. REUTERS/KCNA ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. NOT FOR USE BY REUTERS THIRD PARTY DISTRIBUTORS. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SOUTH KOREA. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A new multiple launch rocket system is test fired in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang March 4, 2016. REUTERS/KCNA ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SOUTH KOREA
A rocket is launched during a demonstration of a new large-caliber multiple rocket launching system attended by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (not pictured) at an unknown location, in this undated file photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on March 22, 2016. REUTERS/KCNA/Files ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SOUTH KOREA. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A rocket is fired during a drill by anti-aircraft units of the Korean People's Army (KPA) in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang November 3, 2015. REUTERS/KCNA ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SOUTH KOREA.
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“(The) threat posed by North Korea has grown to the unprecedented, critical and imminent level. Therefore, we have to take calibrated and different responses to meet with that level of threat,” he said, speaking through a translator, at the start of talks in the Philippines.

South Korea’s Song also acknowledged that “North Korea’s provocative behavior is becoming worse and worse,” in public remarks before reporters were escorted out of the meeting room.

Mattis renewed sharp criticism of North Korea’s tests, saying they “threaten regional and global security.”

Mattis, who kicked off a week-long trip to the region on Monday, has been eager to emphasize diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis peacefully as escalating tension between Washington and Pyongyang stoked fears of ‘armed confrontation.’

Asked about his conversation with Onodera after the two met earlier in the day, before joining South Korea’s Song, Mattis said they discussed “maintaining stability and peace in support of the diplomats.”

Meanwhile, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter said he is willing to travel to North Korea on behalf of the Trump administration to help diffuse the situation, the New York Times reported.

Mattis has been more cautious in his public remarks than U.S. President Donald Trump, who has been locked in a war of words with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, threatening to destroy North Korea if necessary to defend the United States and its allies.

Kim has blasted Trump as “mentally deranged.”

‘GRAVE CONCERN’

Mattis is at the start of a week-long trip to Asia and will attend meetings hosted by defense ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the Philippines.

ASEAN defense ministers, in a joint statement, expressed “grave concern” over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and urged the reclusive country to meet its international obligations and resume communications.

They underscored the “need to maintain peace and stability in the region” and called “for the exercise of self-restraint and the resumption of dialogue to de-escalate tensions in the Korean peninsula.”

Mattis’ trip, which will include a stop in Thailand, comes before Trump’s first visit to Asia next month, including a stop in China.

Trump has been pressuring China to do more to rein in North Korea’s missile and nuclear program. China is North Korea’s neighbor and biggest trading partner.

Mattis, while in the Philippines, said he will commend the military for defeating insurgents in Marawi City on the islandof Mindanao.

The Philippines said on Monday it has ended five months of military operations in Marawi after a fierce and unfamiliar urban war that marked the country’s biggest security crisis in years.

Some experts see the Marawi insurgency as a prelude to a more ambitious bid by Islamic State loyalists to exploit Mindanao’s poverty and use its jungles and mountains as a base to train, recruit and launch attacks in the region.

“It was a tough fight,” Mattis told reporters on his flight to the Philippines, adding he thought the Philippines’ military had sent “a very necessary message to the terrorists.”

On Thursday, Mattis will lead the U.S. delegation inThailand for the cremation rites for the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Reporting by Phil Stewart; Additional reporting by Manuel Mogato in Manila; Editing by Peter Cooney and Jeffrey Benkoe

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