In an apparent bid to allay fears of an American pullback from Northeast Asia, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for national security adviser has called U.S.-South Korean ties a “vital alliance” as the two nations seek to rein in North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, a South Korean official said Saturday.
Trump adviser and retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn made the comments during talks Friday with a delegation of South Korean officials visiting the U.S. to gauge the incoming administration’s position on the alliance, South Korea’s presidential deputy national security adviser Cho Tae-yong was quoted as saying by the Yonhap news agency.
“He characterized the Korea-U.S. alliance as a vital alliance, and the basis of the alliance should continue to be strengthened,” Cho said of the one-hour meeting with Flynn.
Flynn, who has yet to formally accept the post Trump offered him, also told the delegation that the incoming U.S. administration would make the North Korean nuclear issue a top priority as it works closely with the South, Cho said.
Trump’s stunning victory in the presidential election raised concerns in Seoul and Tokyo about the fate of Washington’s alliances with the two Asian powers. Trump had been critical of the pacts and had vowed to take a fresh look at the ties, suggesting the withdrawal of American troops stationed in the two countries unless they cough up more cash. He had even said he was open to the idea of South Korea and Japan developing their own nuclear arsenals.
South Korea hosts approximately 28,500 U.S. troops, while Japan hosts about 54,000 military personnel. Both contribute substantial sums to base U.S. forces there, despite Trump’s claims that they are not paying enough.
Cho said the meeting did not touch on defense cost-sharing, U.S. troop reductions, the planned deployment of a powerful missile defense system to South Korea or bilateral military intelligence sharing between South Korea and Japan.
Since his victory, Trump and his advisers have worked to tamp down the rhetoric of the campaign trail.
In a meeting with Trump on Thursday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was impressed enough with his apparently moderated stance to call the president-elect a “trustworthy leader.” And in a Nov. 10 phone call, Trump also reaffirmed his commitment to the alliance with South Korea.
“We will be steadfast and strong with respect to working with you to protect against the instability in North Korea,” South Korea’s presidential Blue House quoted Trump as saying at the time.
North Korea has conducted an unprecedented two nuclear tests this year — including its most powerful to date. It has also launched a volley of missiles this year, with some crashing down into Japanese waters, as it seeks to master the technology needed to fix a nuclear warhead to a missile capable of hitting the United States.
Amid the standoff with the North and tensions with its main patron, China, experts say Trump is likely to take a more traditional U.S. approach to Asia, albeit one that diverges from President Barack Obama’s policy of “strategic patience,” which has sought to wait out a sanctions-crippled Pyongyang.
In an essay written just before the election in Foreign Policy magazine, Trump advisers Alexander Gray and Peter Navarro promoted what they say will likely be Trump’s approach to the region: “peace through strength.”
“This essay and other comments by surrogates suggest that Trump may already be walking back from his campaign positions,” Stephan Haggard, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, wrote on the Peterson Institute for International Economics’ blog “North Korea: Witness to Transformation” on Friday.
“On the alliances, Gray and Navarro seem intent on providing assurances, reiterating the demand for more cost-sharing but underlining that ‘there is no question of Trump’s commitment to America’s Asian alliances as bedrocks of stability in the region.'”
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