The US defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, said on Thursday any nuclear attack on the US or its allies by North Korea would “result in the end of the Kim regime”.
Kim Jong-un’s government in Pyongyang has in recent days mounted a number of missile tests. The South Korean military said a test of an intercontinental ballistic missile on Thursday may have ended in failure. Japan called the launch “outrageous and absolutely intolerable”.
According to a joint communique released by the US Department of Defense, during his meeting with the South Korean defense minister, Lee Jong-sup, Austin said: “Any nuclear attack against the United States or its allies and partners, including the use of non-strategic nuclear weapons, is unacceptable and will result in the end of the Kim regime.”
Similar language was included in the US National Defense Strategy, which was released last week.
That document said, in part: “Our strategy for North Korea recognises the threat posed by its nuclear, chemical, missile and conventional capabilities, and in particular the need to make clear to the Kim regime the dire consequences should it use nuclear weapons … there is no scenario in which the Kim regime could employ nuclear weapons and survive.”
Austin, a retired US army general and the first African American secretary of defense, spoke to reporters at the Pentagon alongside Lee.
“Minister Lee and I had an outstanding discussion today,” Austin said. “We talked about how the DPRK [North Korea] has continued provocations and destabilising actions, and at this time of heightened tension, our alliance is ironclad.
“The United States remains fully committed to the defense [of South Korea]. Our extended deterrence commitment is firm and includes a full range of our nuclear and conventional and missile defense capabilities.”
He said the two countries planned to return to large-scale military exercises on the peninsula. The Biden administration has taken such steps after four years in which Donald Trump placed unprecedented stress on relations between Seoul and Washington, saying he wanted South Korea to pay for US military assistance in place since the Korean war of 1950-53.
Trump, whose cavalier treatment of matters of nuclear policy has been extensively reported, met repeatedly with Kim, staging high-profile summits that produced little tangible benefit.
At the Pentagon, Austin said the US was “committed to building on on [the Biden administration’s] efforts to strengthen integrated deterrence and to ensure that this alliance continues to bolster security and stability on the Korean peninsula and throughout the Indo-Pacific”.