U.S. defense chief James Mattis spoke with his South Korean counterpart over the telephone Monday to reaffirm Washington’s commitment to defending its Asian ally, the Pentagon said in a statement, amid concerns over North Korea’s nuclear program.
Mattis spoke with South Korea Defense Minister Han Min-koo amid reports that the North could conduct a test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) soon.
Mattis said the U.S. commitment to defending South Korea included providing “extended deterrence using the full range of U.S. capabilities.”
The new U.S. defense chief is scheduled to visit South Korea — the first leg of a trip that will also take him to Japan — on Thursday and Friday, where he will meet with Han and acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn.
The trip will be Mattis’ first abroad since his confirmation as secretary of defense. It is widely seen as the U.S. attempting to reassure nervous allies amid concerns that the administration of President Donald Trump was considering a pullback from the region.
In their call, the defense chiefs said that the two countries’ alliance remains “more relevant today” amid “the evolving North Korean threat.”
“Mattis’ decision to visit Seoul for his first overseas trip after being appointed as defense secretary will deliver a very timely and stern message to North Korea,” the Yonhap news agency quoted Han as saying in a statement.
Mattis’ trip comes just weeks after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced in a New Year’s address that the country was entering the “final stage of preparation for the test launch of (an) intercontinental ballistic missile.”
The announcement has sparked growing speculation about the possibility of an impending test, possibly of an ICBM or mid-range missile, sometime soon, possibly on or around Kim Jong Il’s birthday on Feb. 16.
Such a missile could potentially be capable of hitting the U.S. mainland, though experts have cast doubt on the North having mastered the technology.
The 30-minute phone call also saw the two defense chiefs confirm that the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile-defense system will be placed in South Korea this year as scheduled.
The two allies reached a deal on the deployment last year, but it has faced uncertainty amid a corruption scandal that has seen President Park Geun-hye impeached. The country’s Constitutional Court is currently debating her fate.
It has also faced fierce opposition from China and Russia, which have vowed to take unspecified “countermeasures” in response to the deployment.
Beijing and Moscow have condemned the THAAD plan, saying the “missile defense system’s X-band radar can peer into territories of the two countries.” Media reports have also cited Chinese officials as saying that the true purpose for the deployment is to track missiles launched from China.
North Korea unleashed a spate of missile tests and conducted two atomic explosions last year, and the Kim regime is believed to already possess somewhere between 10 to 20 nuclear weapons.
Earlier this month, Yonhap reported that two new missiles had been loaded onto mobile launchers, citing high-level South Korean officials and South Korean and U.S. military sources.
The missiles were thought to be equipped with new engines that Pyongyang tested last April, Yonhap reported. The North said at the time that the new tech would “guarantee” an eventual nuclear strike on the U.S. mainland.
On Friday, a report by the North Korea-watching website 38 North said that the hermit nation appeared to have restarted plutonium production for its nuclear weapons program at its main Nyongbyon reactor complex.
The visit by Mattis is likely to assuage at least some of the lingering fears in Seoul, security experts said.
Steven Ward, a professor of political science and international relations at Chosun University in Gwangju, South Korea, said that Mattis would be a “strong voice in Trump’s ear for stability.”
“We’ll have to wait and see if Trump’s ‘America First,’ doctrine is as incompatible to Obama’s ‘pivot’ toward Asia as it seems,” Ward said.
“My hunch is that (nominee for Secretary of State Rex) Tillerson and Mattis will be moderating factors and things won’t change all that much in East Asia,” he said. “I’m not as confident as I would like to be about that though.”