U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis said on Thursday in Seoul that North Korea's nuclear threat would be a "top priority" for Donald Trump's administration, in statements carried by South Korea's Blue House.
"Were it not for the provocative behavior of North Korea we would have no need for THAAD out here", Mattis told reporters before his arrival, referring to the U.S. Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense anti-ballistic missile system.
Gen. James Mattis is in South Korea, and the new defense secretary has delivered what one analyst calls an "unexpected present" from the Trump administration: clarity on USA policy.
President Trump also spoke to South Korean Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn this week to say the USA would remain a strong military ally.
After campaign threats of possibly drawing down military support for South Korea, Trump may be trying to soothe hurt feelings by sending Mattis to Seoul.
THAAD's been touted as a means of thwarting North Korea's ballistic missile threats against South Korea and Japan, but China and Russian Federation say they're extremely concerned about their security being compromised by the anti-missile system's powerful radar.
"Indeed, within the span of President Trump's current four-year term in office, it is probable that Pyongyang will deploy a mobile, nuclear-tipped ICBM capable of striking USA territory", he said. "So I'm going to get current by listening to them, finding out where their issues are, and then we're going to work together and strengthen our alliance", he said.
Mattis, without citing China explicitly, said "no other nation" needed to be concerned about THAAD. Before the bilateral dialogue, Mattis will pay a visit to South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se. Trump also jolted the region by pulling Washington out of an Asia-Pacific trade deal that Japan had championed.
But on the campaign trail past year, Trump said he might be willing to meet the North Korean leader for discussions over a hamburger.
"Have we maintained what passes for peace so far?"
In July 2016, Seoul and Washington agreed to deploy the THAAD system in South Korea's Seongju County amid growing tensions in the region spurred by North Korea's ballistic and nuclear tests. Last week, a USA based think-tank said the North appeared to have restarted a nuclear reactor at Yongbyon capable of processing plutonium for a nuclear weapon.
Kent Calder, director of Asia programs at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies, said Mattis could bolster Japan's confidence by explicitly reaffirming that disputed East China Sea islands are covered by the U.S. -Japan defense treaty.
During the meetings, the Korean officials impressed upon Mattis the importance of close cooperation in the face of North Korean threats, and Mattis responded the "alliance would continue to take defensive measures in response to these threat developments, such as the stationing of THAAD to Korean Peninsula", according to Pentagon spokesman Cmdr.
South Korea's Constitutional Court is now deciding whether to uphold the National Assembly's motion to impeach Park, who made the decision to host THAAD.
Both South Korea and the U.S. yesterday recommitted to plans to deploy Thaad, according to Mr Hwang's office.