U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris said North Korea is a country with a brutal dictatorship, an illegal weapons program and massive human rights violations, issuing an unusually harsh criticism during a visit to the inter-Korean border on Thursday, Reuters reported.
Shortly after Harris concluded her Asia trip, North Korea launched two ballistic missiles from north of its capital, Pyongyang, late Thursday night toward her flight from South Korea, the third such launch in five days.
Harris, visiting for the first time the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas, said the heavily armed border zone serves as a stark reminder of the dramatically different paths the two sides have taken.
"In the North, we see a brutal dictatorship, rampant human rights violations and an unlawful weapons program that threatens peace and stability," Harris said.
"The United States and the world seek a stable and peaceful Korean peninsula where the DPRK is no longer a threat," she said, referring to North Korea by the initials of its official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Harris visited the demilitarized zone after arriving in the South Korean capital of Seoul early Thursday morning amid growing regional tensions over North Korean missile launches and China's actions in the Taiwan Strait.
North Korea launched two ballistic missiles from north of Pyongyang into the sea off its east coast, South Korea's military said, about two hours after Harris flew to Washington.
The missiles flew about 300 kilometers (186.4 miles), reaching a maximum altitude of 50 kilometers (31 miles), Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada said, indicating that they were most likely short-range ballistic missiles (SLBMs).
Harris' visit came amid fears that North Korea was about to conduct a nuclear test. South Korean officials say North Korea has completed preparations for its seventh nuclear test and its first since 2017.
Harris and South Korean President Yoon Sook-yeol held talks and condemned North Korea's increased nuclear rhetoric and series of missile tests, the latest on Wednesday.
"They condemned the DPRK's provocative nuclear rhetoric and ballistic missile launches," a White House statement said. "They discussed our response to potential future provocations, including through trilateral cooperation with Japan."
Harris and Yun reaffirmed the goal of complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, the White House said.
Harris also reiterated U.S. commitments to extended deterrence of its Asian ally, including "the full range of U.S. defense capabilities."
Yoon's office said that if North Korea goes on a serious provocation, such as a nuclear test, he and Harris agreed to immediately use "jointly prepared countermeasures," without specifying details.
Earlier this month, North Korea enshrined its right to launch preventive nuclear strikes in a new law. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said he was developing nuclear weapons and missiles to defend against U.S. threats.
Aides to the U.S. vice president said Harris' visit to the DMZ, the first visit by a Biden administration official, was intended to demonstrate the unwavering U.S. commitment to South Korean security.
The DMZ, often referred to as the last Cold War frontier, was created because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.
The trip gained urgency after North Korea launched two short-range missiles off its east coast on Wednesday, the second test since Sunday. Meanwhile, South Korea and the U.S. are conducting naval exercises involving a U.S. aircraft carrier.
The South Korean and Japanese navies said Friday they will hold a trilateral anti-submarine exercise with U.S. forces designed to improve their ability to counter North Korea's evolving threats, including its submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
Harris and Yoon also discussed changes to U.S. subsidies for electric cars, which South Korea fears could disadvantage its automakers.