Pence says U.S. wants peaceful solution to North Korea crisis, but warns not to underestimate U.S.

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TOKYO (Reuters) – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said on Thursday the United States wants to peacefully dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program but warned Pyongyang not to underestimate U.S. military strength or resolve.

“Our forces are ready and our nation is resolved,” Pence said in a speech to U.S. troops at the Yokota Air Base in Japan, as he prepared to fly to South Korea to attend the Winter Olympics.

The United States “will always seek peace, we will ever strive for a better future, but you the instruments of American power know and let our adversaries know all options are on the table,” he told the audience.

“America stands strong with the proud and free people of South Korea and we always will,” he added.

Pence, who arrived in Japan on Tuesday to meet Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is traveling to South Korea Thursday to attend the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics opening ceremony, just 80 km (50 miles) from the heavily armed border with North Korea. Two of North Korea’s most senior officials will also be there.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence addresses members of U.S. military services and Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) before he departs for South Korea, at U.S. Air Force Yokota base in Fussa, on the outskirts of Tokyo, Japan, February 8, 2018. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

On Wednesday Pence said Washington will soon impose its harshest-ever sanctions on Pyongyang.

After a year of escalating rhetoric between the Pyongyang and Washington, tensions on the Korean peninsula have eased after the North’s leader Kim Jong Un said in a New Year’s address he was willing to open discussions with Seoul.

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Since then the North has agreed to take part in the South’s Winter Olympics with a combined women’s ice hockey team from both sides, and Kim Yo Jong, the 28-year-old sister of the North Korean leader, will attend the opening ceremony.

South Korea wants to use the Olympics to re-engage with North Korea and open the way for talks to resolve one of the world’s most dangerous crises.

North Korea last tested a missile in November, 2017. The intercontinental ballistic missile, the Hwasong-15, is believed to be capable of reaching the continental United States, but the North is not yet believed to have the capability to mount a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile.

Reporting by Tim Kelly and Linda Sieg; Editing by Paul Tait and Michael Perry