Mike Pence, the US vice president, arrived in South Korea on Sunday carrying a range of military options for tackling North Korea’s increasing belligerence.
Donald Trump has already labelled the hermit state a “problem country” and dispatched his vice president for a regional visit at a time when Pyongyang is suspected of preparing its sixth nuclear test.
His job will be to fill in some of the president’s broad policy outlines, while also leaving out enough details to keep opponents guessing.
In the past few days the White House has completed a two-month review of its North Korea strategy, which officials summarised as “maximum pressure and engagement”.
The aim is to force Kim Jong-un into giving up his nuclear programme, which some analysts believe has already produced as many as 30 weapons.
A senior administration official said Mr Pence’s visit to Seoul would include discussions about the threat from North Korea, including military options.
“Absolutely we'll be discussing that with our allies and partners at every stop,” he told journalists during a briefing ahead of the trip.
“And we've got some military options already being assessed, but we'll work that as we sit down in discussions with General Brooks, the commander there on Peninsula.”
Gen Vincent Brooks is the head of United States Forces Korea, which has about 37,500 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines at its disposal.
According to globalsecurity.org, an invading North Korean army would be met by 140 M1A1 tanks, 170 Bradley armoured vehicles and 100 aircraft, including 70 F-16 fighter planes.
The force was bolstered amid rising tensions this year with an additional 24 Apache attack helicopters.
Mr Trump has struck a more muscular international stance since coming to power than his predecessor, who warned him that North Korea would provide his biggest challenge.
When asked about North Korea this week, Mr Trump told reporters: “North Korea is a problem. The problem will be taken care of.”
The key lies with China, North Korea’s most important trading partner. Mr Trump has declared repeatedly that he would take unilateral action if Beijing failed to do more to increase economic pressure on the North.
At one time his administration even hinted it was considering installing nuclear weapons in South Korea, from where they were removed 25 years ago. It would mark the first overseas nuclear deployment since the end of the Cold War and a highly provocative gesture.
The policy review also included consideration of pre-emptive military strikes or even regime change.
However, aside from the tough talk, Mr Trump’s team appear to have selected a strategy that resembles Mr Obama’s policy.
The two-month review ended with what officials described on Friday as a policy of “maximum pressure and engagement”. The administration's immediate emphasis, the officials said, will be on increasing pressure on Pyongyang with the help of Beijing.
It will be up to Mr Pence to fill in the gaps during meetings with leaders in South Korea, Japan, Indonesia and Australia during a 10-day regional tour.
Victor Cha, the Korea chair at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, told the Associated Press: “The message, I think, is going to be about vigilance and deterrence.”
He added that Mr Pence would try to balance reassurance with a willingness to respond if North Korea acts.
“The United States wants to project a more muscular image when it comes to the policy so some unpredictability serves that cause,” he said.
Those words were echoed by administration officials.
“The president has been very clear that, you know, under his leadership we are not going to telegraph future potential moves one way or the other when it comes to military or national security issues,” according to a senior official.