In first official visit to South Korea, Defense Secretary Mattis reassures Asian allies

The new US Defense secretary said that the United States would stand 'shoulder-to-shoulder' with South Korea against the threat posed by North Korea.

Song Kyung-Seok/Reuters
US Defense Secretary James Mattis (l.) talks with South Korea's acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn (r.) during their meeting at the Government Complex in Seoul, South Korea February 2, 2017.

James Mattis, the newly confirmed US defense secretary under President Trump, said Thursday that the United States would stand with South Korea against the threat posed by the North. The remarks were the first public comments made by Secretary Mattis in his official capacity outside of the United States.

At the start of a two-day trip to South Korea, Mattis criticized recent provocative statements by North Korea and recommitted plans to install a US-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system in the country later this year.

"THAAD is for defense of our ally's people, of our troops who are committed to their defense," Mattis told reporters shortly before landing in South Korea.

China has voiced objections to the THAAD missile defense system, saying that it would destabilize the balance of power in the region. Mattis, however, said there was no need for concern from other countries.

"Were it not for the provocative behavior of North Korea, we would have no need for THAAD out here," Mattis said.

The Mattis trip comes at a time of uncertainty over the US role in Asia under the new administration. On the campaign trail, Trump often criticized China, and shortly after the election, challenged a longstanding diplomatic protocol concerning the "one-China" policy by taking a phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, before taking office. Trump has also raised the possibility of making allies like Japan and South Korea pay more for having US troops stationed on their soil and has already pulled the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement that was under negotiation between the US and 11 Pacific Rim countries, including Japan. 

The unpredictability surrounding the new US president's foreign policy has caused worries among many US allies in Asia and elsewhere.

"I talked to President Trump and he wanted to make a very clear statement about the priority that we place on this alliance between our two nations," Mattis said. "Our new administration inherits a very strong, trusted relationship between our two countries and it's our commitment to make it even stronger especially in the face of the provocations that you face from North Korea."

The US and South Korea share a common threat in North Korea, which has recently amped up their usual nuclear threats against the US and their neighbors to the south.

"South Korea and the United States must try to extract a change in North Korea's strategic calculus by deterring the North's aggression," President Hwang said in a statement.

During an annual New Year's address, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un announced that the country had reached the "final stages" of developing an intercontinental ballistic missile. South Korea is taking that claim seriously, as The Christian Science Monitor's Michael Holtz recently reported:

Satellite images and intelligence briefings reported by South Korean media over the past two weeks offer grim warning signs: two missiles placed on mobile launchers, improvements at a coastal missile site, and increased activity at the country’s main nuclear reactor.

"North Korea's nuclear and missile threats are no longer [just] potential," Hwang Kyo-ahn, South Korea's acting president, said at a press briefing Monday in Seoul, according to the South Korean news agency Yonhap. “Its nuclear and missile capabilities are developing at an unprecedented rate.”

While North Korea is prone to exaggeration of its military and nuclear might, an ICBM could theoretically be capable of delivering a nuclear device to the US. While such a capability is likely much farther away than the Pyongyang claims, the possibility of an earlier-than-expected ICBM test could be a major test for Trump, who is known for bucking conventional political and diplomatic wisdom.

"Right now we have to address the reality of the threat that your country and my country faces and we intend to be shoulder-to-shoulder with you as we face this together," Mattis said at talks with Mr. Hwang Kyo-ahn in Seoul.

After several meetings scheduled for Thursday and Friday, Mattis is set to fly to Tokyo for consultations with Japanese officials, another key US ally.

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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