US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Friday there has been no change in US policy protecting South Korea but stressed Washington's goal "is not war" as it seeks to ease high military tension with Pyongyang.
Following talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Mattis said that Washington’s policy in protecting Seoul, in the face of missile and nuclear threats from the reclusive North, hasn’t changed.
In a press release distributed by South Korea's presidential office, Mattis was also cited as saying North Korea's obsession with its weapons programs presented a threat.
Mattis, who visited the tense Demilitarized Zone during his trip to South Korea, criticized the North's "pursuit of nuclear weapons... in order to threaten others with catastrophe".
But he maintained that Washington was still committed to a "diplomatic solution".
"As the US Secretary of State Tillerson has made clear, our goal is not war but rather the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean peninsula," he said in the “truce village” of Panmunjom where North literally meets South.
Mattis also stressed he and his South Korean counterpart Song Young-Moo had "made clear our mutual commitment to a diplomatic solution to address North Korea's reckless, outlaw behavior.”
Tension has flared on the Korean peninsula as US President Donald Trump and the North's ruler Kim Jong-Un have traded threats of war and personal insults that sparked global alarm.
Mattis is set to hold annual defense talks with Song on Saturday during the two-day trip, which comes ahead of a planned visit by the US president to the South next month.
All eyes will be on Trump’s message to the North and Kim.
Meanwhile, North Korea said it will send back a South Korean fishing boat and its crew who were detained for crossing the eastern sea border between the rivals.
Its announcement came hours before Mattis visited the heavily-armed land border between the Koreas.
Experts say it's unclear whether Pyongyang’s gesture reflects intentions to improve relations with the South.