SEOUL — Vice President Pence could not have known when he took off from Joint Base Andrews Saturday morning that by the time he landed here in South Korea, the North Korean regime would have fired off yet another missile, raising tensions on the peninsula to almost unprecedented levels. But his response to the incident was on par with his rising role as the Trump administration’s unofficial secretary of reassurance.
On the plane ride over, shortly after taking off from our refueling stop in Alaska, Pence was informed that the Pyongyang regime had fired off what appeared to be a medium range missile that exploded only seconds after leaving the launch pad. A White House foreign policy adviser came to the back of the plane to brief reporters on the planned response; since the test was a failure, no response was needed, the adviser said.
“For this particular case if they took the time and energy to launch a missile that failed we don’t need to expend any resources against that,” the adviser said, adding that if the test had been successful or if it had been a nuclear detonation, the U.S. government had a robust response plan at the ready.
Sure enough, after some interagency discussion, the Trump administration issued a short official statement in the name of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, calling Pyongyang’s action another failed test and stating that the U.S. government would have no further comment.
That strategy, designed not to reward Kim Jong Un for his provocations by giving him the satisfaction of an angry U.S. government reaction, makes sense as far as it goes. But for the South Koreans and for the thousands of U.S. troops stationed here, each North Korean missile launch is a serious matter that warrants a serious acknowledgment. For them, ignoring Pyongyang’s dangerous escalations is simply not an option.
Pence addressed that head-on at the U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan only hours later while speaking to U.S. soldiers as they sat down for their Easter dinner.
“This morning’s provocation from the north is just the latest reminder of the risks each one of you face every day in the defense of the freedom of the people of South Korea and the defense of America in this part of the world,” he said. “Let me assure you, under President Trump’s leadership, our resolve has never been stronger. Our commitment to this historic alliance with the courageous people of South Korea has never been stronger. And with your help and with God’s help, freedom will ever prevail on this peninsula.”
The vice president, who is visiting South Korea for the first time, then told the story of his father, 2nd Lt. Edward J. Pence Jr., who fought in combat in the Korean War with the 45th Infantry Division. He was awarded the Bronze Star in 1953 and that commendation is on display in Pence’s West Wing office. Pence used the anecdote to reinforce his message that the United States and South Korea are bound by history, shared sacrifice and common values.
“And so on this day I think of my dad, gone 29 years now, but still enshrined in the hearts of everyone in our family,” he said. “And I think of what dad would be thinking about and I believe is thinking about as he looks down to see his third son return to that place that he left so many years ago, and to see that the sacrifices that were made here, and the commitment that endures here has resulted in a free and prosperous South Korea.”
Pence’s four-nation tour, which will take him also to Japan, Indonesia and Australia, could be called a reassurance tour, meant to both remind America’s Pacific allies where we’ve come from and let them know that the United States under Trump has a clear sense and firm commitment to where we are going. There’s no doubt that reassurance is both badly needed and welcomed, given the confusion foreign partners have about the Trump administration.
Trump campaigned on accusing Asian allies of not paying their fair share for common defense and U.S. support. He continues to tweet cryptic and often provocative messages about his plans to deal with the North Korean crisis. On the government-to-government level, Asian nations are keenly aware that no Trump administration ambassadors have actually reached the region and the Trump administration has yet to appoint senior officials for State Department and Defense Department Asia-related posts.
Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have also done their own reassurance tours of Asia, but Pence’s trip brings a higher level of engagement and carries more weight. It’s a role Pence played in Europe in February: letting allies and partners know that the basic tenets of U.S. foreign policy remain intact, even inside the White House.
None of that solves the deep and serious challenges that the United States and its allies face in the region, with the North Korean nuclear threat at the top of that list. But Pence’s foreign policy reassurance efforts are a good start.