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Mattis Describes Overseas Trip as Opportunity to Listen to Allies’ Concerns

By Jim Garamone | | Feb. 2, 2017

WASHINGTON, Feb. 2, 2017 — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will listen to the concerns of South Korean and Japanese leaders during his first trip overseas in his new position

The secretary arrived today in Seoul, South Korea’s capital, and he spoke with reporters during the 20-hour flight from Washington. He also will visit Japan during the trip.

Mattis said he wants to view the situation from the perspective of America’s strong allies in Northeast Asia, saying the situation in the region is a priority for President Donald J. Trump’s administration. South Korea and Japan are treaty allies of the United States, and “together we confront the North Korean situation,” he said.

“I want to listen to them, engage with their political leaders, listen to some of their briefs, [and] get an understanding of their view of the situation,” the secretary said.

Mattis told reporters he served in Korea as a young Marine officer in 1972. “But I've been not back out here in a long, long time,” he added.

North Korean Threat

The secretary said he intends to listen to South Korean and Japanese leaders’ take on the threats posed by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s regime. North Korea has exploded nuclear devices and is attempting to build intercontinental ballistic missile. The North Korean leader has also invested his nation’s limited wealth in cyber capabilities, special operations units and the rest of the military. The North Korean People’s Army has about 1 million personnel on active duty and is one of the few well-fed segments of North Korean society.

North Korea has often acted in a provocative way, Mattis said, and Kim has absolute power and is unpredictable. “It’s hard to anticipate what they do,” he said. “One of the reasons I want to come out and talk to the leadership out here, [is that] they live in the neighborhood. They watch this as an existential threat to them, and I need to get some data from them. I need to get their appreciation of the situation before I start making statements on where I stand on it.”

Committed to Defense System

Still, he said, the nuclear missile effort is the immediate threat to the region and the United States, and the United States is committed to fielding the terminal high-altitude area defense system in South Korea.

“That THAAD is for defense of our allies’ people [and] of our troops who are committed to their defense,” the secretary said. “And were it not for the provocative behavior of North Korea, we would have no need for THAAD out here. There's no other nation that needs to be concerned about THAAD other than North Korea.”

Mattis said he wants to go beyond the current strategy in the region.

“Strategies are games of give and take, and I have to see their view of it, and [ask] have we maintained what passes for peace so far?” he said. “To a degree we have, but we’re not trying to just look at today. We’re looking at today and we’re looking at tomorrow, and I need to see where they view this going right now.”