-- Vice President Mike Pence will begin his highly-anticipated trip to Asia Saturday as tension continues to build on the Korean peninsula, with North Korea vowing to continue its provocative campaign to test and advance its nuclear program.
Pence, on his first official visit to Asia as vice president, will visit South Korea, Japan, Indonesia and Australia before stopping in Hawaii on the return leg of his 10-day trip.
“The most important message from the vice president on behalf of the president is that we have an ironclad commitment to stand with our allies in the region, in their defense,” Pence Press Secretary Marc Lotter said in an interview on ABC’s “Powerhouse Politics” podcast ahead of the trip.
The stop in South Korea, where Pence will spend Easter Sunday with American and South Korean troops and hold a bilateral meeting with Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn, comes as North Korea celebrates the 105th birthday of founder Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of the country’s current leader Kim Jong Un.
Pence will “reaffirm” the United States’ commitment to the “ironclad” U.S.-South Korean alliance, a senior administration official told reporters ahead of the trip.
“We're going to continue to consult with the Republic of Korea on North Korea's efforts to advance its ballistic missile and its nuclear program,” the official said.
While Pyongyang’s behavior riled the Obama administration, North Korea has taken an even more aggressive posture in the region in recent months, conducting several missile and rocket engine tests since the start of the year.
President Trump has responded with a series of remarks condemning the actions, saying North Korea "is looking for trouble" in a recent tweet and telling reporters on Thursday: "North Korea is a problem. The problem will be taken care of."
In a recent interview with the Associated Press, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Han Song Ryol accused President Trump of creating a “vicious cycle” of tension in the region, and “making trouble” with his “aggressive” tweets.
"Trump is always making provocations with his aggressive words," Han said. "So that's why. It's not the DPRK but the U.S. and Trump that makes trouble."
The White House has prepared for the possibility of another North Korean nuclear test during the vice president’s visit to South Korea this weekend.
While Pence will discuss regional security at other stops in Japan, Indonesia and Australia, he will also focus on trade and economic issues, and meet with business leaders throughout the trip.
In Japan, Pence will kick off economic talks first announced by Trump and Japanese President Shinzo Abe after their February summit.
Pence's visit to Australia, a close U.S. ally, comes after Trump criticized an Obama-era deal between the two countries to resettle refugees.
Trump discussed the agreement to resettle asylum seekers held in Australian processing centers with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in a 25-minute phone call in the first days of his administration.
According to the Washington Post, Trump told Turnbull on the call the refugee agreement was the "worst deal ever."
Turnbull called the conversation with Trump frank, while White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the president had a "very cordial" discussion with the Australian prime minister.