U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis used his first foreign trip to reassure South Korea and Japan that the U.S. will continue its military presence in the region, calming fears that President Donald Trump would follow through on campaign threats to withdraw American troops if the two countries don’t pay a larger share of the cost.
Mattis underscored the point by recommitting the U.S. to installing a $800 million advanced missile defense system in South Korea in response “to North Korea’s threatening rhetoric and destabilizing behavior.”
The U.S. and South Korea agreed to deploy the system last July in a deal brokered under the now-impeached South Korean president, Park Geun-hye. The Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense battery, which is manufactured by Lockheed Martin, can target short-, medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles in flight.
North Korea’s activities are the only one reason that the South and the U.S. have discussed the deployment of a THAAD battery.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis
Russia and China have opposed deploying the system, saying it undermines their own security interests.
China’s ambassador to South Korea warned last year that deploying the system “would break the strategic balance in the region and create a vicious cycle of Cold War-style confrontations and an arms race, which could escalate tensions.”
Speaking to reporters en route to Seoul, Mattis said the weapon was intended only for defense.
“There’s no other nation that needs to be concerned about THAAD other than North Korea if they’re engaged in something that’s offensive,” he said. “THAAD is for the defense of our allies’ people, (and) of our troops who are committed to their defense. And were it not for the provocative behavior of North Korea, we would have no need for THAAD out here.”
North Korea conducted more than 20 ballistic missile tests in 2016. In its statement Friday, South Korea’s Defense Ministry said the system would be deployed “within this year.”
The system has been controversial in South Korea, which Mattis praised as a “linchpin of peace and stability” in the Asia-Pacific region. His two-day visit drew protesters with anti-THAAD signs and banners. Residents are worried about possible negative health effects and the impact on the environment, and others are worried about antagonizing Beijing.
South Korea has not said it will contribute to the system’s cost, beyond land and resources for its installment, so the deployment will likely add to the cost of the U.S. military presence in South Korea, which Trump has objected to.
Neither side said whether the controversial matter of sharing the costs of the U.S. military presence came up during meetings with Mattis.
During his presidential campaign, Trump suggested he might withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea and Japan, accusing them of not paying their fair share for defense. There are around 28,500 American soldiers stationed in South Korea, and 45,000 in Japan.
South Korea is also paying 90 percent of the $10.7 billion it will cost to relocate U.S. forces to an expanded base south of Seoul.
In 2014, South Korea paid $866.6 million for the U.S. military presence, around 40 percent of the total cost, according to the South Korean government.
“We cannot afford to be losing vast amounts of billions of dollars on all of this. We just can’t do it anymore,” Trump said last March.
His words created uncertainty as South Koreans worried that he might follow through. The day after his election, South Korean stock markets plunged, and Park called an emergency meeting of the national security council.
But in a phone call soon after, Trump told Park he intended to keep the security alliance. Mattis’ visit this week reaffirmed that the U.S. would not change its approach to its Asian allies, which face looming threats from North Korea’s nuclear weapons advances and China’s growing territorial aims.
“America’s commitments to defending our allies and to upholding our extended deterrence guarantees remain ironclad,” Mattis said in Seoul on Friday, in remarks with Defense Minister Han Min Koo. “Any attack on the United States or our allies will be defeated, and any use of nuclear weapons would be met with a response that would be effective and overwhelming.”
The Pentagon stressed that the trip was not meant to roll out any changes in U.S. policy but just to listen to concerns, reaffirm support and “underscore the priority the Trump administration places on the Asia-Pacific region.”
This is the first international trip by any of Trump’s Cabinet secretaries. Mattis’ visit to Tokyo on Friday paved the way for the first official summit between Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe next Friday in Washington. Abe has said he plans to urge Trump to preserve the U.S. military presence in Japan as well.
“I want there to be no misunderstanding during the transition in Washington that we stand firmly, 100 percent shoulder to shoulder with you and the Japanese people,” Mattis told Abe on Friday.