Secretary of Defense James Mattis spoke with his South Korean counterpart on Tuesday in anticipation of his arrival to the region later this week, expressing commitment for the defense of the region against North Korean belligerence.
According to statements on the call from both nations, Mattis promised South Korean Defense Minister Han Minkoo that the United States would support Seoul “against the evolving North Korean threat.” The South Korean outlet Yonhap adds that the half-hour phone call also included assurances that the United States would follow through on the implementation of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) the two nations agreed upon installing under President Barack Obama. The THAAD missile system is intended to defend South Korea from any impending North Korean attack, though China has repeatedly objected to the system arguing that it also expands South Korea’s ability to attack Chinese territory if the nation ever wishes to do so.
The Mattis call followed a similar communication at the head-of-state level between President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, who is currently serving as president following the impeachment of Park Geun-hye. Reports of the call between Trump and Hwang suggest they did not discuss details of the bilateral relationship, as Mattis is set to engage in person next week, but Trump did use the call to affirm America’s commitment to the security of its ally.
Hwang had reportedly sought an exchange with the new Trump administration shortly after the November presidential election regarding North Korea. “I would like to congratulate Trump on his election, and hope this will be an opportunity for the development of the ties between South Korea and the United States,” Hwang said in a statement; Yonhap added that officials within his government were hoping close ties to the White House would help South Korea curb Pyongyang.
Secretary of Defense Mattis will spend parts of Thursday and Friday in South Korea meeting with Hwang and several other high-ranking officials, including Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se and National Security Office chief Kim Kwan-jin. He is later expected to fly to Japan for another series of high-level meetings. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is expected to visit Washington in February to follow up on developments established during Mattis’s visit.
The topics in the meetings scheduled for both Mattis’ South Korean and Japanese stops will likely be similar, with the North Korean threat paramount on that list. It will be Mattis’s first visit abroad with his new Cabinet title.
“The trip will underscore the commitment of the United States to our enduring alliances with Japan and the Republic of Korea, and further strengthen U.S.-Japan-Republic of Korea security cooperation,” Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said following the announcement of the visit.
North Korea has apparently been active in building its nuclear arsenal as of late, as satellite photos indicate that the Yongbyon nuclear facility has been processing plutonium. Images published by 38 North, an online publication dedicated to tracking Pyongang’s activities, suggest that at least one nuclear reactor is operative in the Yongbyon facility. The plutonium processed there may be for use in a new nuclear test; North Korea has executed five such tests, the latest in September.
A recent North Korean government defector suggested in December that this was the case. “Due to domestic political procedures, North Korea calculates that South Korea and the US will not be able to take physical or military actions to deter North Korea’s nuclear development,” Thae Yong-ho, a former high-ranking communist diplomat, said last month.
North Korea has expressed no interest in engaging the new Trump administration, issuing a statement following Trump’s election asserting, “we do not care.”