U.S. Defense Secretary, James Mattis has reassured the South Korean leadership that the alliance between the two nations remains strong, and it will only get stronger in the face of threats from North Korea.
Mr. Mattis’ visit to Seoul is the first foreign trip by a senior official in the Trump administration.
The reassurance came after President Donald Trump had accused South Korea and Japan of not paying its fair share for U.S. military support, but Mr. Mattis used the occasion to assure South Korea to the continuation of U.S. support through already agreed security deals.
As a candidate, Donald Trump threatened to withdraw U.S. forces from South Korea and Japan if they were unable to increase their financial support to the U.S. military operations. He also suggested that both the countries should be allowed to acquire a nuclear arsenal; the idea was rejected by the two nations.
He also said that he is willing to talk to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, a move that would contradict longstanding U.S. policy with South Korea and Japan.
Defense Secretary landed South of Seoul, at the U.S. military’s Osan Air Base, after which he went to U.S. Forces (USFK) headquarters where he was briefed on the security situation in Korean peninsula by Commander Vincent Brooks.
Mattis also met the acting South Korean President Hwang Kyo-Ahn on Thursday afternoon and reiterated the strength of the U.S.-South Korean alliance.
Mr. Mattis will stay in South Korea until Friday, where he will meet Han Min-Koo, his Korean counterpart, among other officials.
The statement from Pentagon said that the visit would “underscore United States commitment to our enduring alliances with the Republican of Korea and Japan, and further strengthen U.S.-Japan-Republic of Korea security cooperation.”
Mr. Mattis told reporters that he would discuss North Korea’s nuclear program and the planned deployment of U.S. missile defense system in South Korea.
The trip comes amid increasing threats from North Korea that it is going to test-fire an intercontinental ballistic missile at any time.
The U.S. and South Korea agreed to the deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) under the Obama administration, the system would defend the South from North Korean missiles.
Mattis said that North Korea’s provocative behavior was the reason why THAAD is needed.
“There is no other nation that needs to be concerned about THAAD other than North Korea if they’re engaged in something that’s offensive.”
The move has angered China, which says the defense system goes “far beyond the security needs of the Korean peninsula” and threatens China’s security.
As part of the post-war arrangement, there are just under 28,500 U.S. military personnel currently based in South Korea. The deployment gets an annual payment of $900 from South Korea.
Mr. Mattis will travel to Japan on Friday, where he will hold talks with Japanese Defense Minister, Tomomi Inada. There are around 50,000 soldiers plus their dependents and support staff in Japan. The U.S. paid $5.5bn in 2016 for its Japanese bases, while Japan paid $4bn.