North Korea, a common thorn in the sides of Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo, featured prominently in Mattis' talks with top South Korean officials on Thursday. The retired Marine Corps general said that his country would stand "shoulder-to-shoulder" with Seoul to face the North Korean nuclear threat, Reuters reported.
Pyongyang has been increasingly hinting that it is ready to test an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), adding to rising fears it will act on threats of targeting enemies with a nuclear weapon. Choe Kang II, deputy director general for North American affairs at North Korea's foreign ministry told NBC News on Jan. 25 that Pyongyang was ready to test an ICBM "at any time, any place," That same day, Mattis' predecessor Ash Carter warned Washington would shoot down any missile aimed at it or an ally.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's nuclear program is a matter crucial to Trump's re-election so Mattis will likely look to discuss ways to disarm the rogue nation as well as deploying preventative measures against potential attacks, said Christopher Hill, former U.S. ambassador to South Korea from 2004-2005.
In July, then South Korean President Park Geun-hye agreed to host a American defense technology system called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), which is designed to shoot down ballistic missiles. But the current political turmoil in Seoul could endanger THAAD implementation.
In the aftermath of Park's resignation, the country is due to elect a new leader later this year and leftist opposition candidates are increasingly seen as the likely winners. It's not yet clear whether these leftist parties will support THAAD or give into Chinese pressure to ditch the system, remarked Hill.
China and Russia believe THAAD deployment on the Korean Peninsula will threaten the mainland's national security interests. "No other nation" should be concerned about THAAD," Mattis said on Thursday, according to Reuters. "Were it not for the provocative behavior of North Korea, we would have no need for THAAD out here," he added.
Hill, who led a series of negotiations aimed at halting Pyongyang's nuclear program known as the Six Party Talks, believes Kim's regime is entirely capable of developing a weapon that can reach the U.S. within the next four years. Coinciding with Matthis' arrival in Seoul on Thursday, the White House will be launching a review of its North Korea policy, the Financial Times reported, citing unnamed sources.
Because Kim has expressed zero interest in denuclearization, Mattis has little chance of resuming multi-nation talks, Hill noted, adding that the best option for Trump is to slow the pariah state's nuclear program, which can't be done without Beijing's help. But that may prove to be tricky amid worsening U.S.-Chinese ties. In a tweet last month, Trump criticized China, a traditional ally of Pyongyang, for its lack of assistance on the nuclear issue.