Mattis heads to South Korea, paving the way for Trump amid region's heightened tensions

US Department of Defense(NEW YORK) — One week before President Donald Trump departs on his first trip to Asia, his secretary of defense is paving the way for his visit — stopping in several of the same countries on the president’s schedule and meeting with U.S. allies about continued provocations by North Korea.

Later this week, Secretary James Mattis stops in South Korea, where he will co-chair a major security meeting with his South Korean counterpart that will largely focus on how to deal with the North Korean threat.

As Mattis and later Trump head to the Korean Peninsula, U.S. intelligence believes the regime is closer than ever to achieving its goal of a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could reach the mainland United States.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo told a Washington think-tank earlier this month that North Korea could be just months away from perfecting the capability to attach a nuclear weapon to an ICBM — a capability the U.S. and its allies are adamant North Korea should not be allowed to obtain.

While the administration continues to repeat that they are pursuing a diplomatically-led effort to resolve the crisis, senior national security officials have stressed that the U.S. will continue to keep military options on the table.

National security adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster told reporters last month that despite increased economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations against North Korea, “We’re out of time.”

“And so for those who have said and have been commenting about the lack of a military option, there is a military option,” McMaster said from the White House briefing room in September. “Now, it’s not what we would prefer to do, so what we have to do is call on all nations, call on everyone to do everything we can to address this global problem short of war.”

Prior to landing in South Korea, Mattis was in the Philippines this week for a meeting with defense ministers from Southeast Asia. On the sidelines of that summit, the U.S., South Korea and Japan agreed to expand information sharing regarding the North Korean threat, as well as to increase the number of joint training exercises with long-range U.S. bombers.

The exercises and recent U.S. military “shows of force” are intended to send a signal to North Korea that the U.S. has the unique military capabilities to defend South Korea from the regime’s aggression.

While most of the shows of force have been in direct response to individual missile launches and the hydrogen bomb test in early September, other military exercises are long-planned.

Last week, U.S. and South Korean Navies completed a bilateral training exercise involving the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan designed to prepare for a North Korean land and air attack against the south.

On Sept. 23, U.S. bombers and fighter jets flew to farthest point north of the North and South Korean border in the 21st century to send a message about the “military options” open to America in dealing with Kim Jong Un’s regime, the Pentagon said.

These exercises often draw the ire of Pyongyang, which has repeatedly accused the U.S. and its allies of escalating tensions in the region.

“Do we have military options in defense if we’re attacked, our allies are attacked?” Mattis told reporters in the Philippines on Wednesday. “Of course we do. But everyone is out for a peaceful resolution.”

Speaking about Trump’s historic visit to the region in November, a senior U.S. official said the administration made a “good faith effort” to signal to North Korea that the door was open to dialogue. But, that “olive branch” was returned with the regime’s ballistic missile and nuclear tests, as well as the death of American hostage Otto Warmbier, the official said.

Trump departs on his 11-day trip on Nov. 3, which includes stops in Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Copyright © 2017, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.