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Harris visits DMZ after North Korean missile tests

Vice President Harris looks into North Korea through binoculars from Panmunjom, South Korea, in the demilitarized zone, on Thursday. (Leah Millis/Pool/Reuters/AP)
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PANMUNJOM, South Korea — Vice President Harris toured the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea on Thursday, becoming the most senior Biden administration official to inspect the demarcation line during a four-day trip to Asia that has been dominated by Indo-Pacific security concerns.

As Harris stood just a few feet from the North Korean side of the border in the Joint Security Area, North Koreans working in a building on the other side peeked out from behind a curtain. Three years ago at the same spot, President Donald Trump became the first sitting American commander in chief to set foot in North Korea when he walked shoulder to shoulder with Kim Jong Un as the two leaders agreed to restart denuclearization negotiations.

Those talks stalled, and North Korea is barreling ahead with its nuclear weapons and missile programs, with the prospect for reengagement appearing further out of reach than ever. As she concluded her visit to the DMZ, Harris said the United States sought a world in which “North Korea is no longer a threat.”

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North Korea and its ballistic missile program are “destabilizing the peace and security of this region,” Harris said, adding that the shared goal of the United States and South Korea is “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Washington and Pyongyang have differed on what “complete denuclearization” means in practice.

The DMZ is the 2.5-mile-wide buffer zone that runs about 160 miles across the peninsula and has separated the two Koreas since the 1953 armistice in the Korean War.

Harris traveled to Asia to attend the state funeral of former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, who was assassinated in July. But she also sat for a trio of bilateral talks that highlighted common economic interests and delved into the potential dangers posed by North Korea and China.

Underscoring the threat, North Korea conducted ballistic missile tests just before and after Harris’s trip to the Korean Peninsula, and a day before Harris arrived in the region. On Thursday, about two hours after Harris took off from South Korea, the North test-fired two ballistic missiles, the South Korean military said. The militaries of the United States and South Korea are conducting joint exercises off the eastern coast of the peninsula.

South Korea’s new conservative president has sought to work more closely with Washington to show a harder line toward the North. The allies are leaving open the door to dialogue with Pyongyang but are in no rush to force a breakthrough.

The strengthening of ties between the United States and South Korea was on display Thursday during Harris’s trip to the DMZ. South Korea is protected under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, which guarantees that the United States would use its nuclear weapons to defend South Korea if needed.

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After visiting U.S. service members and their families at Camp Bonifas, a United Nations command post in the DMZ, the vice president went to Observation Post Ouellette to survey the demarcation zone and peer into North Korea through binoculars. When a South Korean soldier said she may be able to view North Korean soldiers looking back at her, she replied: “I had no doubt that would happen.”

“It’s so close,” she said, referring to the North Korean side.

North Korea’s recent missile launches were the first such tests since June. Harris has gone out of her way to reiterate the U.S. commitment to allies in the pivotal Indo-Pacific.

In a speech on the USS Howard destroyer on Wednesday, Harris pledged to intensify “unofficial ties” with Taiwan, days after the Biden administration said it would use its armed forces to defend the island if China invades in an “unprecedented attack.”

“China has flexed its military and economic might to coerce and intimidate its neighbors,” Harris said on the deck of the destroyer, during a visit to the largest U.S. Navy installation outside the United States. “And we have witnessed disturbing behavior in the East China Sea and in the South China Sea and, most recently, provocations across the Taiwan Strait.”

Harris’s trip was built around Abe’s state funeral on Tuesday, and her plans to visit the DMZ had been kept under wraps by her team. The visit was unexpectedly revealed during Tuesday’s bilateral meeting with South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo, who praised her pending trip to the demilitarized zone and her commitment to security on the Korean Peninsula. White House officials scrambled to confirm details of her trip afterward. Typically, official plans to visit the DMZ are announced shortly before the trip because of security concerns.

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Several former presidents have visited the DMZ since it was established some seven decades ago.

In 2019, Trump met with Kim, the North Korean leader, at the DMZ in an unsuccessful attempt to get Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

More recently, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) visited in August, talking with South Korean leaders about nuclear deterrence. Afterward, Pyongyang said Pelosi’s visit showed the Biden administration’s open hostility toward North Korea and called her “the worst destroyer of international peace and stability.”

President Biden visited the DMZ as vice president, but he did not venture to the border during his May trip to Japan and South Korea. North Korea fired an intercontinental ballistic missile, according to the South Korean military, and two other missiles a day after Biden left the region.

Lee reported from Tokyo.