North Korea is accelerating its push to acquire a nuclear-armed missile capable of threatening the United States and other nations, and the U.S. regards this as a "clear and present danger," U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Saturday.
Speaking at an international security conference in Singapore, Mattis said the Trump administration is encouraged by China's renewed commitment to working with the U.S. and others to rid North Korea of its nuclear weapons. He also said he thinks China, which is North Korea's closest ally, ultimately will see it as a liability.
China blocked tough new sanctions against North Korea that the United States pushed in the U.N. Security Council on Friday. However, the Security Council did vote unanimously to add 15 individuals and four entities linked to the North's nuclear and missile programs to a U.N. sanctions blacklist.
In his speech to the Shangri-La Dialogue, sponsored by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Mattis sought to balance his hopeful comments on China with sharp criticism of what he called Beijing's disregard for international law by its "indisputable militarization" of artificial islands in disputed areas of the South China Sea.
"We cannot and will not accept unilateral, coercive changes to the status quo" in the South China Sea, he said.
Overall, Mattis' speech struck a positive, hopeful tone for cooperation and peace in the Asia-Pacific region, where he and his predecessors have made it a priority to nurture and strengthen alliances and partnerships.
"While competition between the U.S. and China, the world's two largest economies, is bound to occur, conflict is not inevitable," he said. "Our two countries can and do cooperate for mutual benefit. We will work closely with China where we share common cause."
He was, however, unrelentingly critical of North Korea, a politically and economically isolated nation whose leaders have long viewed the United States as a military threat, in part because of periodic U.S. military exercises with South Korea, which the North sees as preparations for attacks aimed at destroying its ruling elite.
The U.S. has about 28,500 troops permanently based in South Korea, a defense treaty ally.
"North Korea's continued pursuit of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them is not new, but the regime has increased the pace and scope of its efforts," he said, alluding to the North's series of nuclear device tests in recent years and an accelerated pace of missile tests seemingly aimed at building a missile with enough range to hit the U.S.
"While the North Korean regime has a long record of murder of diplomats, of kidnapping, killing of sailors, and criminal activity, its nuclear weapons program is a threat to all," Mattis said, adding, "As a matter of national security, the United States regards the threat from North Korea as a clear and present danger."
Mattis noted that last week the Pentagon conducted what it called a successful test of its missile defense system, which is being developed mainly with North Korea in mind. An interceptor launched from coastal California soared over the Pacific on Tuesday, scoring what officials called a direct hit on a target missile fired from a Pacific test range. It was the first time the system had been tested against a missile of intercontinental range.
Mattis used the Shangri-La Dialogue to reiterate his call for international cooperation against violent Islamic extremist groups, such as the Islamic State, sometimes called ISIS, which he said are trying to gain ground in Southeast Asia.
In his prepared remarks for the Singapore conference, Mattis made no mention of President Donald Trump's decision to pull the U.S. out of a global climate change agreement, a move that infuriated allies far and wide. The Pentagon's position in recent years has been that climate change presents threats to the nation's security and to stability around the world.
In 2014, Chuck Hagel, a Republican and former U.S. senator who was Pentagon chief from 2013 to 2015, told other defense ministers: "Climate change is a 'threat multiplier' because it has the potential to exacerbate many of the challenges we already confront today — from infectious disease to armed insurgencies — and to produce new challenges in the future."