Defense Secretary Mattis’ First Overseas Trip To Assess North Korean Threat

Defense Secretary Mattis’ First Overseas Trip To Assess North Korean Threat

Defense Secretary Gen. James Mattis
Defense Secretary Gen. James Mattis

On Wednesday, Defense Secretary James Mattis left for South Korea, where a Sen. Bob Corker warned that he will be “staring down the barrel of a North Korean ICBM.”

Sen. Corker, a Tennessee Republican and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, echoed those of South Korean military officials, who take seriously the threat of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un that the test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the U.S. mainland could come at “any time.”

At a committee meeting Tuesday, Corker noted North Korean claims to have miniaturized a nuclear warhead and reports of renewed production of fissionable material by the North. The result is that the U.S. and its allies are now “staring down the barrel of a North Korean ICBM,” Corker said.

Last week, Adm. Um Hyun-seong, South Korea’s chief of naval operations, warned of the potential of North Korean aggression during the prolonged celebrations of the new Lunar Year, which will coincide with Mattis’ visit, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported.

Kim Jong-un said in his New Year Day’s address that his country has entered the final stage of preparations to test-fire an ICBM, indicating it is close to developing a nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the U.S.

Mattis’ choice of the Far East for his first overseas trip as the new defense secretary is intended to underline the enduring commitment of the U.S. to the region.

He also will seek to reassure allies increasingly concerned about President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of the U.S. from the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal and his complaints about Japan and others not contributing their fair share to defense.

Mattis is scheduled to meet Thursday in Seoul with Acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn and National Security Office Chief Kim Kwan-jin. On Friday, he is to meet with Defense Minister Han Min-goo before leaving for Japan.

In Tokyo, Mattis is to meet with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Defense Minister Tomomi Inada on his two-day visit.

During his stays in South Korea and Japan, Mattis is not expected to bring up the subject of South Korea and Japan paying more to host U.S. forces, according to U.S. and Japanese sources cited by the Japan Times newspaper.

Ahead of Mattis’ visit, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford spoke by phone with his South Korean counterpart, Gen. Lee Sun-jin. The two agreed that “an acute security situation” is posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

“The talks were also aimed at reaffirming the strong commitment of the two countries to building up a joint defense posture as the new U.S. administration takes control,” Yonhap reported.

In an article Tuesday in Joint Forces Quarterly, Dunford made the blunt assessment that the previous U.S. strategy of containing a conflict with North Korea to the peninsula is no longer possible, given North Korea’s military advancements.

“There was a time, not long ago, when we planned for a conflict that might be contained to the peninsula. But today, North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile, cyber, and space capabilities could quickly threaten the homeland and our allies in the Asia-Pacific region,” Dunford said.

“Deterring and, if necessary, defeating a threat from North Korea requires the Joint Force to be capable of nearly instant integration across regions, domains, and functions,” he said.