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Korean peninsula

US still backs Korean missile shield, Pentagon chief says

James Mattis tells hosts in Seoul that threat from North Korea makes THAAD system a necessity

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 February, 2017, 11:53pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 February, 2017, 11:53pm

The new US defence secretary, James Mattis, and his South ­Korean host reaffirmed on Thursday their push to deploy a US missile defence system in South Korea to counter North Korea’s nuclear programme.

The commitment was made after Mattis met South Korea’s acting president and prime minister, Hwang Kyo-ahn, in Seoul.

Mattis’ two-day trip to South Korea, which will end today and be followed by a stop in Japan, is the first foreign trip made by any of US President Donald Trump’s cabinet officials, underscoring the region’s priority for the new administration.

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Chinese analysts said the two countries’ refreshed pledge to deploy the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system would likely draw a backlash from Beijing.

A commentary by the official Xinhua news agency said what the Trump administration was offering to the region “seems to be a dangerous first-meeting gift”.

“Though it is still too early to judge the Trump White House’s overall Asia policy, yet warning shots have been fired that the billionaire-turned-politician is likely to follow a playbook that has been tested ineffective and provocative,” the commentary said.

Mattis said Washington’s security commitment to Seoul included the deployment of THAAD and US “extended deterrence”, reported Yonhap news agency, quoting a statement from South Korea’s presidential office.

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“Extended deterrence” refers to the US commitment to use ­nuclear weapons to deter attacks on its allies.

“THAAD is for defence of our ally’s people, of our troops who are committed to their defence,” Mattis was quoted as saying by Reuters before landing in Seoul.

Washington and Seoul ­announced the plan in July last year to deploy THAAD by the end of 2017.

Beijing has repeatedly expressed strong opposition to the deployment, arguing that its radar capability is aimed at China.

Mattis said that “no other nation” needed to be concerned about THAAD.

“Were it not for the provocative behaviour of North Korea, we would have no need for THAAD out here,” Mattis said.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said last month the country was close to test launching an intercontinental ballistic missile.

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During his election campaign, Trump took aim at South Korea and Japan for what he called their reliance on US protection.

In a bid to provide assurance to Seoul, Mattis said Washington remained committed to “very strong, prestigious” bilateral ties.

“I talked to President Trump and he wanted to make a very clear statement about the priority that we place on the alliance between our two nations,” he said.

Lu Chao, director of the Border Studies Institute at the Liaoning ( Academy of Social Sciences, said China “is paying close attention to the US’ next move in Northeast Asia”.

“The high-profile visit of ­Mattis is aimed at providing support to South Korea’s conservative party after Park Geun-hye’s impeachment,” said Lu.

South Korea’s president Park was impeached in December over a graft scandal.

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Lu said Beijing would stay on high alert for “any further moves by the US and South Korea that will harm China’s security”, and warned that Beijing would hit back with “tit-for-tat measures”.

Cui Zhiying, Director of the Korean Peninsula Research Centre at Tongji University, said that while Mattis had put the emphasis on the threats from North Korea during his trip to Seoul, Washington’s real target was China.

“While Trump’s ‘America first’ pledge may lead to US retreat from many of the world’s affairs, he is going to strengthen the US presence in Northeast Asia,” said Cui.

“The main reason why the US is strengthening its alliance with South Korea is to contain China.”

Cui Zhiying, Director of the Korean Peninsula Research Center at Tongji University, said while Mattis has put the emphasis on the threats from North Korea during his trip to Seoul, Washington’s real target is China.

“While Trump’s ‘America first’ pledge may lead to US retreat from many of the world affairs, he is going to strengthen the US presence in Northeast Asia,” said Cui.

“The main reason why the US is strengthening its allies with South Korea is to contain China,” he said.