The first U.S. defense chief under Trump administration visited South Korea on Thursday, picking the Northeast Asian ally as his first overseas tour destination since he took office about two weeks earlier.
James Mattis arrived here at about 12:30 p.m. local time (0330 GMT) before going to the headquarters of U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) in central Seoul, where he was briefed by the USFK commander on security situations on the Korean Peninsula.
His travel, which includes a two-day stop in Japan beginning on Friday, followed the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) indication of test-launching a ballistic rocket of intercontinental range.
Top DPRK leader Kim Jong Un said in his New Year’s Day address that his country had entered the final stage in preparations to test-fire an intercontinental ballistic rocket, which Seoul sees as an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
The DPRK’s fourth and fifth nuclear tests in January and September last year deepened concerns about the country having the capability of miniaturizing a nuclear warhead that can be mounted on a long-range ballistic missile.
Any successful test-launch of an ICBM will raise worries that the DPRK can strike the U.S. mainland with a nuclear-capable ballistic missile. Pyongyang claims its diversified nuclear capability beyond a miniaturized nuclear warhead.
Amid growing concerns about the DPRK’s nuclear and missile programs, the Pentagon chief is set to hold talks with his counterpart, Defense Minister Han Min-koo, on Friday in the South Korean defense ministry’s headquarters.
The DPRK is expected to top the dialogue agenda between the two defense ministers.
“Mattis visited (South) Korea ahead of Japan. It indicates the main goal of his first overseas trip is sending a warning message to North Korea (DPRK),” Go Myong-hyun, a research fellow at Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, told Xinhua.
Mattis is also expected to try to appease anxieties of South Korea and Japan during his trip to the region as U.S. President Donald Trump mentioned his possible abandonment of the two allies unless Seoul and Tokyo pay more for almost 80,000 U.S. troops stationed in the two countries.
According to the Asan researcher, the retired U.S. Marine general will try to iron out possible misunderstandings through talks with the South Korean defense chief, while confirming the U.S. commitment to its ally’s defense.
Mattis’ visit also has a meaning of filling up personnel vacuum in the Trump administration as diplomatic officials in charge of Northeast Asian affairs have yet to get into work, Go said.
The U.S. missile shield, called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), will certainly be disucssed between Han and Mattis after the two countries agreed on the THAAD deployment in South Korea, the researcher said.
Seoul and Washington agreed in July last year to install one THAAD battery in southeastern South Korea by the end of this year. Local media speculated that the installation could be completed between May and July.
According to media reports, Mattis told reporters on board his plane that he would talk to South Korean officials about the THAAD deployment.
The deployment decision evoked criticism from the parliament and people at home as well as strong oppositions from China and Russia.
The THAAD’s X-band radar can peer into Chinese and Russian territories, breaking security balance and fueling arms race in the region. The super microwave-emitting radar is also detrimental to human body and environment, prompting residents in the deployment site to continue their protest rally every night.
Seoul and its surrounding metropolitan areas, which have about half of the country’s total 50 million populations, are excluded from the THAAD’s intercepting range as the battery is supposed to be placed in the southern region.
The advanced anti-missile system, which is designed to shoot down incoming missiles at an altitude of 40-150 km, is incapable of hitting DPRK missiles targeting South Korea, which fly at an altitude of less than 40 km. Enditem