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North Korea a 'clear and present danger', US defence secretary warns

US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis has turned up the heat on North Korea, labelling the country a "clear and present danger".

Speaking at an international security conference in Singapore, Mr Mattis also criticised China for what he described as coercive behaviour in the South China Sea.

His sharp words for both countries suggest he believes China will, out of self-interest, exert leverage on North Korea to halt its nuclear and missile programmes even as Washington pushes Beijing to change course in the South China Sea.

Mr Mattis said the Trump administration is encouraged by China's renewed commitment to working with the US and others to rid North Korea of its nuclear weapons.

He also said he thinks China ultimately will see it as a liability rather than an asset.

China blocked tough new sanctions against North Korea that the US pushed in the UN Security Council on Friday.

However, the council did vote unanimously to add 15 individuals and four entities linked to the North's nuclear and missile programmes to a UN sanctions blacklist.

In his speech to the Shangri-La Dialogue, Mr Mattis sought to balance his hopeful comments on China with sharp criticism of what he called Beijing's disregard for international law by its "indisputable militarisation" of artificial islands in disputed areas of the South China Sea.

"We oppose countries militarising artificial islands and enforcing excessive maritime claims unsupported by international law," he said.

"We cannot and will not accept unilateral, coercive changes to the status quo."

Overall, the speech by Mr Mattis struck a positive tone for co-operation and peace in the Asia-Pacific region, where he and his predecessors have made it a priority to nurture and strengthen alliances and partnerships.

"While competition between the US and China, the world's two largest economies, is bound to occur, conflict is not inevitable," he said.

He was, however, unrelentingly critical of North Korea, a politically and economically isolated nation whose leaders have long viewed the US as a military threat, in part because of periodic US military exercises with South Korea, which the North sees as preparations for attacks aimed at destroying its ruling elite.

He called North Korea an "urgent military threat".

In a question-and-answer session with his audience of national security experts from across the globe, Mr Mattis was asked whether the US might attack the North pre-emptively and without warning South Korea in advance.

"We're working diplomatically, economically, we're trying to exhaust all possible alternatives to avert this race for a nuclear weapon in violation of ... the United Nations' restrictions on North Korea's activities," he said.

"We want to stop this. We consider it urgent," he added.

The U.S. has about 28,500 troops permanently based in South Korea, a defence treaty ally.

"North Korea's continued pursuit of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them is not new," Mr Mattis said in his prepared remarks.

"The regime has increased the pace and scope of its efforts," he added, alluding to the North's series of nuclear device tests in recent years and an accelerated pace of missile tests seemingly aimed at building a rocket with enough range to hit the US.

"While the North Korean regime has a long record of murder of diplomats, of kidnapping, killing of sailors and criminal activity, its nuclear weapons programme is maturing as a threat to all," Mr Mattis said.

"As a matter of national security, the United States regards the threat from North Korea as a clear and present danger."

AP

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