James Mattis, the new secretary of defense, spoke to his South Korean counterpart Tuesday, confirming to Defense Minister Han Min-koo the US commitment to defend his country “against the evolving North Korean threat.”
The pledge, given over the phone days before his visit to Seoul, followed President Trump’s telephone conversation with the South’s acting president, Hwang Kyo-ahn, Sunday. During that call, the American leader reiterated the US’s “ironclad commitment” to defend the Republic of Korea, as South Korea is formally known.
Trump, according to the White House, also mentioned “the provision of extended deterrence, using the full range of military capabilities,”code for America’s willingness to use its nuclear arsenal.
Many say the new administration in Washington is worried about North Korea, which this month threatened to launch a ballistic missile and which has almost certainly restarted its only plutonium reactor. Yet it is South Korea, not the North, that is of concern at this time.
The new administration is in full-reassurance mode because South Korea, rocked by a deepening impeachment crisis, is fragile at the moment. That’s why Seoul is the first stop on Mattis’s first foreign trip as Secretary of Defense. He travels to Tokyo after visiting the South Korean capital.
Mattis has a full agenda in Seoul. At the top of the list is the fate of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, built by Lockheed Martin to shoot down incoming missiles. Both Mattis and Han affirmed that South Korea would go forward with the deployment of THAAD, as the system is known.
President Park Geun-hye had agreed last July to host THAAD on South Korean soil, but Beijing vigorously objected, saying the US could use its radar to look across the border into China. Since the decision to deploy, the pro-THAAD Park was removed from office, impeached by a lopsided vote of the National Assembly in December. Her fate is now in the hands of the Constitutional Court, which can either confirm the removal or reinstate her.
Beijing has taken advantage of the political uncertainty to try to reverse Park’s decision on the missile-defense system. China has, to this end, imposed not insubstantial costs on the South Korean economy, most notably,stopping charter flights between China and the South, limiting Chinese tourists going to the South, barring South Korea’s K-pop groups from performing in China, and prohibiting the import of South Korean cosmetics. South Koreans fear Beijing will turn up the heat should Seoul continue with its decision to deploy. China is the South’s largest trading partner, so Beijing’s actions have made South Korea jittery.
The Chinese are not the only group to exploit Park’s worsening predicament. The South’s so-called “progressives”—in reality, leftists—have been energized by developments and are now leading the race to capture the Blue House in the next presidential election, to be held this year. Should they win, they will undoubtedly stop THAAD deployment, thereby emboldening China to help North Korea even more.
And the progressives will downgrade relations with Japan. Conservative governments, pushed by the progressive left, delayed for years the signing of the General Security of Military Information Agreement, an intelligence-sharing pact, which was finally inked in November.
South Korea and Japan are not treaty allies, although each has a treaty relationship with Washington. Japan can get along without South Korea, but South Korea, tucked in between North Korea and Japan, desperately needs Tokyo’s assistance should it ever be attacked again. The progressives, should they win the presidency this year, will surely end most, if not all, forms of defense cooperation with Tokyo.
Given all these destabilizing factors, it’s no surprise that the Mattis visit has been labeled by the Washington-insider Nelson Report as “Mission Reassurance.”
And reassurance is what North Asia needs. Trump rocked the region last March when he suggested Washington might abandon its defense commitments to Seoul and Tokyo. Despite walking back those comments, there is a lingering belief that the new American president views defense ties with deep skepticism. “My biggest concern is does Trump really mean it,” said Robert Kelly of Pusan National University to Stars and Stripes, referring to his affirmation of the alliance with South Korea. “He’s made it very clear that he sees America’s allies in transactional terms.”
Mattis deserves credit for recognizing that his first trip should be to volatile North Asia, but years of his efforts—and those of President Trump—will be needed to restore stability to the deeply troubled region.