Vice President Kamala Harris on Thursday mistakenly touted the U.S. alliance “with the Republic of North Korea” during her visit to the Demilitarized Zone separating the Korean Peninsula, in a gaffe marring a trip that was meant to burnish her foreign-policy credentials amid skyrocketing tensions with China and Pyongyang.
“The United States shares a very important relationship, which is an alliance with the Republic of North Korea,” Ms. Harris told reporters at the DMZ, misstating South Korea’s official name, the Republic of Korea.
North Korea, officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, is a communist dictatorship continually at odds with the U.S. over its weapons programs and human rights abuses.
The White House released an official transcript of the vice president’s comments later with the word “North” crossed out.
Ms. Harris’ remarks at the DMZ capped her four-day trip to Asia adding to White House actions meant to bolster the vice president’s foreign policy chops, as speculation grows over President Biden’s intent to seek reelection in 2024.
Ms. Harris is the highest-ranking official to visit the DMZ since Donald Trump’s 2019 meeting with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un. Visits to the demarcation zone have become a diplomatic rite of passage for senior officials and politicians.
Photos of Ms. Harris’ visit showed her standing next to senior U.S. military officials holding binoculars and pointing across the border. She looked through bulky binoculars as a South Korean officer pointed out military installations on the southern side.
Then an American officer pointed out some of the defenses along the military demarcation line, including barbed-wire fences and claymore mines. He said American soldiers regularly walk patrols along a path.
“It’s so close,” Ms. Harris said.
Ms. Harris’ trip to the DMZ was also closely watched by her critics.
Her previous forays into foreign policy have come under scrutiny by Republicans who question her ability to deal with high-pressure situations which have global ramifications.
Republicans seized on the vice president’s visit to the border between the two Koreas after details of the trip were unveiled earlier this week. Ms. Harris was tapped to be Mr. Biden’s czar to the U.S. southern border early in the administration.
Critics have accused Ms. Harris of turning a blind eye to the growing crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, where migrants have poured in under the Biden administration.
“Kamala is going to the Korean DMZ to review their border security,” Rep. Ronnie Jackson, Texas Republican, said on Twitter after the trip was announced. “Would it be too much to ask for her to visit OUR BORDER!?”
Her stop at the DMZ came hours after North Korea’s latest series of ballistic missile launches and as concern grows that the country will soon carry out a nuclear test.
North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles into waters off its east coast on Wednesday while the vice president was in Tokyo.
On Sunday, North Korea launched a short-range ballistic missile in what South Korean officials said was a response to the arrival of the USS Ronald Reagan at the port of Busan.
The ship is participating in joint military drills with South Korea that began Monday, the first such joint exercises between the two countries in five years.
The recent missile launches add to a significant uptick in North Korea’s weapons tests, adding to fears that the hermit country is approaching full-fledged nuclear weapons capabilities.
Ms. Harris said the recent and increasingly bellicose actions are “destabilizing the peace and security of this region” and called for “a complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
“We are reminded that the alliance between the United States and the Republic of Korea stands ready to address any contingency,” she said in her address at the DMZ. “The commitment of the United States to the defense of the Republic of Korea, I will report, is ironclad.”
The gaffe at the DMZ marred Ms. Harris’s trip just before she was set to return to Washington after making stops in Tokyo and Seoul.
Prior to her misstatement at the border, the vice president had been carrying out her duties without incident in back-to-back meetings with senior officials and heads of state in the region.
Shortly before visiting the DMZ, Ms. Harris met with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol. The White House said Ms. Harris condemned North Korea’s “provocative nuclear rhetoric and ballistic missile launches, in violation of U.N. security council resolutions” during the meeting.
Ms. Harris’ four-day trip to Japan and South Korea also included meetings in Tokyo with Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo in a bid to “reaffirm the United States’ commitment to our allies in an increasingly complex security environment.”
On Wednesday, the vice president condemned China’s recent “provocations” and pledged American support toward Taiwan’s self-defense during a tour of a U.S. Naval base in Japan.
Speaking aboard the USS Howard at the Yokosuka Naval Base, the vice president accused Beijing of challenging the freedom of the seas and flexing its “military and economic might to coerce and intimidate its neighbors.”
She said the U.S. remains unbowed by Beijing’s “disturbing behavior” and will continue to “oppose any unilateral change to the status quo.”
“The United States believes that peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait is an essential feature of a free and open Indo-Pacific,” she said, adding that the U.S. would “continue to support Taiwan’s self-defense consistent with our long-standing policy.”
The U.S.-China ties have become increasingly strained after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taipei in August.
The California Democrat became the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Taiwan in decades, sparking a series of Chinese military exercises surrounding the island that is 100 miles off of the mainland.
The White House has warned that China’s reaction to the high-profile stopover could cast a far-reaching shadow over U.S.-Chinese relations for the foreseeable future.
Relations became further inflamed earlier this week after Mr. Biden said in an interview on CBS’ “60 minutes” that U.S. forces would defend Taiwan if China launches “an unprecedented attack” on the self-governed island.
Under the Biden administration, the U.S. has adhered to the so-called “One China” policy, under which Washington has long acknowledged Beijing’s position that Taiwan is part of China, even though the U.S. maintains informal diplomatic relations and substantial defense ties with the island democracy — and does not technically recognize Chinese sovereignty over it.
Shortly after the interview aired, the White House said the U.S. policy toward China had not changed.
On Wednesday, Ms. Harris told reporters that the U.S. remains “dedicated to the principles we have long stated.”