USA defence chief to discuss North with officials in S. Korea, Japan

But a key goal for Defense Secretary James Mattis, analysts said, was assuring South Korea and Japan that bonds with the United States would remain strong - despite tough rhetoric from its new president, Donald Trump.

Mattis' visit to South Korea and Japan comes amid speculation that the North is planning to test-fire another missile after a New Year's declaration by Kim Jong Un that the country is in the "final stages" of developing an intercontinental ballistic missile. Jointly, the American allies host about 80,000 USA troops.

Japan, where Mattis was set to travel later on Friday, has its own concerns about North Korea's nuclear and missile capabilities.

He restated the firm USA defense commitment to South Korea and addressed controversy over the South's planned deployment of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system, saying North Korea is the only country that has anything to fear from THAAD, CNN reports.

The comment appears to be made in light of China's objection to the anti-missile system on grounds that it may destabilize the regional security balance.

Trump's commitment to protecting the allied nations from the North Korea threat came into question during the the 2016 campaign when he asserted that some allies are not pulling their weight and suggested that he might not object to Japan or South Korea developing their own nuclear weapons for deterrence if they do not pay more for US military support.

"I want to listen to them, engage with their political leaders, listen to some of their briefs, (and) get an understanding of their view" regarding the "threats" posed by North Korea, the secretary said.

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

Mr Hwang, who is serving as acting president after President Park Geun Hye was impeached over a corruption scandal, called for increasing pressure on Pyongyang, including by strengthening sanctions and pressing forward with a strong, united defence.

"It is a priority for President Trump's administration to pay attention to the northwest Pacific", Mattis said.

In the evening, he attended a dinner reception hosted by National Defense Minister Han Min-koo. But defense cost-sharing and controversial free trade agreements between the US and South Korea - two key themes of President Donald Trump's campaign - did not come up in conversation.

Mattis, so far, has tried to deliver. That underscores the seriousness and urgency with which the retired Marine Corps general takes the threats from North Korea, as well as the importance of the alliances with South Korea and Japan in dealing with the provocative regime.

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". He said at the time in a separate Tweet that China, North Korea's closest ally, wasn't assisting with the denuclearization pursuit.

The two Koreas have been divided by the world's most heavily fortified border since the 1950-53 war ended in an armistice instead of a peace treaty.

  • Adam Floyd