PANMUNJOM, Korea — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s visit to the Korean Peninsula’s extremely militarized demilitarized zone on Friday was meant to show American solidarity with South Korea against a muscular North, which Mr. Mattis accused of building nuclear weapons to “threaten others with catastrophe.”

But the trip also highlighted the central contradiction in the Trump administration’s rhetoric on North Korea: that for all the talk of military options, there really aren’t any — at least, none that wouldn’t put the sprawling city of Seoul, with its population of 10 million, in the cross hairs of thousands of Pyongyang’s artillery installations.

Standing side by side with Mr. Mattis atop an observation post to gaze at the North, South Korea’s defense minister, Song Young-moo, seemed at times to be giving his American counterpart a guided tour of how a strike against North Korea’s nuclear facilities would quickly trigger retaliation.

“There are 21 battalions” stationed over the border, Mr. Song told Mr. Mattis, gesturing toward the hills of North Korea in the distance. “Defending against this many L.R.A.s is unfeasible, in my opinion,” he said, alluding to the bristling array of long-range artillery pointed at his country.

Mr. Song said that the United States and South Korea would have to destroy the North Korean artillery “the moment the war starts.”

But even if the United States and South Korea were able to do so, American defense officials acknowledge that North Korea would still have a significant retaliatory capability, including chemical, biological and nuclear weapons as well as conventional forces. It would be virtually impossible, the officials said, to destroy all of North Korea’s offensive capabilities before it could strike Seoul.

Mr. Mattis’s very helicopter ride to the DMZ illustrated Seoul’s vulnerability. The defense secretary took 30 minutes, by Black Hawk helicopter, to get to the border, though the trip could easily have easily been done in 10, so short is the distance.

Mr. Mattis’s copter circled the hills and flatlands that dot the densely packed region. He flew over a succession of high-rise residential complexes and surveyed armored tank positions. But even by road, the trip from Seoul to the DMZ would have taken under an hour with no traffic.

Both Mr. Mattis and Mr. Song appeared in somber dark suits despite reports in the South Korean news media that Mr. Song had wanted them to wear their old military uniforms. Mr. Mattis “wouldn’t do that,” said Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon press spokesman accompanying the defense secretary. Captain Davis said he could not confirm whether Mr. Song actually made the suggestion, but he added that Mr. Mattis, a retired Marine general, was aware that defense secretary was a civilian post.

The issue underscores the fine line that the United States and South Korea are trying to walk in dealing with North Korea’s recent nuclear and ballistic missile tests.

The last thing that Seoul wants is for the United States to make good on all of President Trump’s threats about military options — South Koreans know that they would be the first to feel the repercussions.

But at the same time, both South Korea and the United States want Pyongyang to think that Washington might launch a strike, in the hope that fears of such action might force North Korea to the bargaining table over its weapons programs.

“Our goal is not war,” Mr. Mattis said, “but rather the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

He called North Korea an “oppressive regime that shackles its people, denying their freedom, their welfare and their human dignity,” and said that Pyongyang’s “provocations continue to threaten regional and global security.”

As he spoke, patriotic North Korean music wafted through the air from speakers over the border. (The Americans and South Koreans routinely retaliate by blasting Korean pop music.) North Korean soldiers stationed just yards away from Mr. Mattis snapped photographs of him, while others peered through the window of the so-called Joint Security Area, a sort-of neutral spot in the DMZ meant for diplomatic engagements, as Mr. Mattis took a tour.

Mr. Mattis’s boss will be following in his footsteps next month, when Mr. Trump visits Seoul as part of a nearly two-week trip to Asia. It is unclear whether Mr. Trump will also travel to the demilitarized zone, a common stop for American presidents.

For the Trump administration, the Korea situation has been complex, in no small part because it now seems as if every time Mr. Trump threatens the North, Pyongyang carries out another nuclear or ballistic missile test. North Korea carried out its sixth nuclear test last month. And since Mr. Trump took office, it has launched several missiles, including ones capable of reaching the mainland United States.

On Thursday, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on 10 North Korean officials and organizations, including one North Korean diplomat based in China who has been accused of forcing North Korean asylum seekers to return home.

Separately, the Pentagon said it was planning military exercises next month involving three of the Navy’s aircraft carrier strike groups in the Asia-Pacific region. The exercise, scheduled while Mr. Trump is traveling through the region, will undoubtedly be interpreted as another warning toward Pyongyang.

Defense officials said that the show of military might was intended to demonstrate American capabilities in the region. But they cautioned that any American military strike against North Korea would come at a huge cost — one that neither Washington or Seoul may be prepared to pay.

During a brief session with American troops in Seoul, Mr. Mattis said that American military might in the region was meant to back up its diplomacy.

“We’re doing everything we can to solve this diplomatically, everything we can,” Mr. Mattis said. “But ultimately our diplomats have to be backed up by strong soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. So they speak from a position of strength.”

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