U.S. President Donald Trump’s defenses secretary told South Korea on Thursday the two allies would stand “shoulder-to-shoulder” to face the threat from North Korea, in a message of reassurance after Trump questioned aspects of the alliance in his campaign.
Jim Mattis’ two-day visit comes amid concern that the North may be readying to test a new ballistic missile, in what could be an early challenge for Trump’s administration. Mattis, in his first trip abroad as Pentagon chief, vowed to strengthen ties in talks with South Korea.
In his New Year’s speech, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had said his nation was close to test launching an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). North Korea appears to have restarted operation of a reactor at its main Yongbyon nuclear facility that produces plutonium that can be used for its nuclear weapons program, according to a U.S. think-tank, 38 North.
Mattis’ trip to the region, which will include a stop in Japan, is the first foreign trip by any of Trump’s cabinet secretaries. U.S. officials have said the trip is meant to reaffirm ties with South Korea and Japan, U.S. allies hosting nearly 80,000 American troops, and the importance of the region overall.
Both South Korea and the United States on Thursday recommitted to plans to deploy a U.S. missile defenses system, known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), in South Korea later this year.