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U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis jokes with reporters as he sits down to brief them in their cabin aboard his plane en route to the Middle East after departing from Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, Monday, April 17, 2017. (Jonathan Ernst/Pool photo via AP)
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US defense chief says NKorea ‘recklessly tried to provoke’

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis jokes with reporters as he sits down to brief them in their cabin aboard his plane en route to the Middle East after departing from Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, Monday, April 17, 2017. (Jonathan Ernst/Pool photo via AP)

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis says North Korea’s latest failed missile launch was a reckless act of provocation.

Mattis commented on the weekend missile launch in an interview with reporters traveling with him Tuesday to Saudi Arabia, where he begins a weeklong Mideast tour. His language was stronger than in an initial written statement he issued shortly after the launch, in which he simply said he was aware of the failure.

“The leader of North Korea again recklessly tried to provoke something by launching a missile,” he said Tuesday, invoking a term — “reckless” — that the North Koreans have used to describe ongoing large-scale U.S. and South Korean military exercises, which the North calls a dress rehearsal for an invasion.

Mattis did not identify the type of missile but said it was not of intercontinental range, meaning it could not reach U.S. territory. He did not comment on what might have caused the missile to fail. Another official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss an intelligence matter, said later that the missile was a Scud variant that the U.S. calls a KN-17.

Mattis credited China with trying to help get the North Korea situation “under control” with the goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.

Asked about his visit to Saudi Arabia, Mattis said the desert kingdom is a “pillar of our security framework for the region.” He is scheduled to meet on Wednesday with King Salman, deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, who also is the Saudi defense minister, and other top officials.

The U.S. military is providing support for a Saudi-led coalition fighting anti-government Houthi rebels. Asked whether the Trump administration plans to increase its military support, Mattis responded by saying the U.S. focus is on arranging a United Nations-brokered negotiating team to resolve Yemen’s civil war diplomatically.

“This is something, with the number of innocent people dying inside Yemen, that simply has to be brought to an end,” he said.

Human rights groups have urged the Trump administration to be more vocal about human rights issues during visits to Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states.

Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain, among others, has criticized what it calls the administration’s plan to decouple human rights from weapons sales.

“It is indeed important to address security concerns, but it is ill-advised, if not dangerous, to make security concerns the only basis for cooperation and an alliance,” said Husain Abdulla, executive director of the group, which is based in Washington.

The U.S. security alliance with Saudi Arabia, dating to 1944 and based largely on the Saudis’ oil riches, has made Washington the kingdom’s most important arms supplier.

The Middle East is familiar turf for Mattis, a Marine veteran of the Iraq war who rose to four-star rank. He finished his military career as head of Central Command, which directs U.S. military operations across the Middle East and Central Asia.

Mattis also plans to visit Qatar, a Persian Gulf state that hosts U.S. forces at al-Udeid air base, which the U.S. uses to centralize its air operations for the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, as well as the war in Afghanistan.

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