US Vice-President Mike Pence has warned North Korea not to test the United States' resolve and military prowess, while reiterating that all options to deal with the regime's nuclear threat are possible, including military action.
"Just in the past two weeks, the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan," he said, referring to US President Donald Trump's orders to strike the two countries.
Mr Pence, who is in Seoul as part of a visit to Asia this week, said: "North Korea would do well not to test his resolve or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region."
The visit of Mr Pence to South Korea follows that of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defence Secretary James Mattis, with the visits aimed at reaffirming US commitment to the defence of its ally amid growing threats from the North.
At a joint press conference with South Korea's Acting President Hwang Kyo Ahn yesterday, Mr Pence urged China to be more proactive in dealing with the North, which has unveiled new missiles and tried unsuccessfully to conduct a missile test over the weekend.
The US and South Korea will push for early deployment of the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) anti-missile system to guard against the North, he said.
Mr Pence's comments drew a protest from China, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang voicing China's opposition to Thaad, which it views as a security threat, while urging all parties to work together to maintain peace and stability in the region.
Meanwhile, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe yesterday urged North Korea to refrain from more provocations, comply with United Nations resolutions and abandon its nuclear weapons programme.
He added that he will press China to play a bigger role in addressing the nuclear problem, while warning that the Kim Jong Un regime is believed to hold a "substantial" amount of chemical weapons.
Tension in the region has escalated as the US ramps up pressure on North Korea and China to resolve the North's nuclear issue.
Speculation has grown that the US may be using Thaad as a bargaining chip to win China's cooperation in restraining North Korea.
Political science professor Kim Jae Chun from Sogang University said Mr Trump may have put Thaad on the negotiating table when he met Chinese President Xi Jinping earlier this month. "If China becomes sincere in pressuring North Korea towards denuclearisation, we don't need Thaad," he said.
But there are doubts about how much influence China has over its recalcitrant neighbour. Pyongyang apparently snubbed Beijing by ignoring requests for China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi and nuclear envoy Wu Dawei to meet their respective counterparts in the North, according to a Bloomberg report.
While China is North Korea's biggest economic lifeline, relations have been frosty and Beijing has more than once expressed frustration with Pyongyang.
Air China's cancellation of its Beijing-Pyongyang route last week was seen as a move to pressure the North, but Mr Lu yesterday denied any political motive. He insisted that the decision was based on market considerations.