Mattis arrives in South Korea to reassure nervous U.S. ally

Mattis began a lightning-fast visit to Asia this week - the first foreign trip by a member of President Trump's still-incomplete Cabinet - less than two weeks after being sworn in as the Pentagon boss.

Alluding to China's objections to having Thaad deployed in South Korea, Mattis said, "Thaad should be a worry to no nation other than North Korea".

According to the South Korean Defense Ministry, Mattis first headed to the headquarters of U.S. Forces Korea in Seoul after his plane landed at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, just 70 km south of the capital city. China fears that the planned deployment may be an attempt by the extend its military network towards the South China Sea, a highly contested part of the region.

Washington stands "shoulder-to-shoulder" with Seoul to face the threat from North Korea, he added, saying he was delivering a message from the new USA leader. "He also underscored that the United States remains steadfast in its commitment to defend the ROK and that the USA extended deterrence commitment remains ironclad", Ross said in a statement.

The visits also reflect the urgency of concerns on both sides of the Pacific about North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

North Korea launched its fifth nuclear test in September, raising concern that the nation will become capable of hitting the US mainland during President Donald Trump's first term in office.

Since taking office, Trump has been issuing orders that upend "longstanding American policy lines", making Mattis' trip and reaffirmation of USA commitment to allies an "unexpected present", Go Myong-hyun, an analyst at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, tells the New York Times.

Trump hasn't said much about North Korea since.

Mattis' visit to South Korea marks his first overseas as Secretary of Defense, and comes amid brewing tensions in the Korean Peninsula over the recent months. "We pay attention to the Northwest Pacific, to our two strong allies", Mattis said of the trip to South Korea and Japan.

That U.S. reaffirmation could be critical after Trump appeared to question the cost of such alliances during the election campaign.

Speaking to reporters before his arrival, Mattis said he would use the talks in Seoul, and those later in the week in Tokyo, to solicit the views of South Korean and Japanese leaders about how best to mitigate the threat from Pyongyang. Its president, Park Geun-hye, had her duties suspended last month after impeachment over corruption allegations.

"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, the secretary said". He said at the time in a separate Tweet that China, North Korea's closest ally, wasn't assisting with the denuclearization pursuit.

There are about 28,500 United States troops based in South Korea and 47,000 in Japan.

After meeting Brooks, the US Secretary will attend a dinner hosted by the South Korean Minister of Defence, Han Min-Koo, at a hotel in Seoul. The president has also pulled out of a major trade deal with Asian allies.

  • Joey Payne