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Donald Trump’s defence secretary has warned North Korea it would face an “effective and overwhelming” response from the US if it used nuclear weapons.
Speaking in South Korea on Friday, James Mattis reassured the government in Seoul that the US would retaliate should its northern neighbour launch any attack.
Mattis, the first senior figure in the new US administration to make an overseas visit, is expected to offer similar security reassurances to Japan despite a suggestion by Trump during the election campaign that Washington’s commitment to its closest ally in the region could weaken unless Tokyo paid more towards the cost of hosting American troops.
“Any attack on the United States, or our allies, will be defeated, and any use of nuclear weapons would be met with a response that would be effective and overwhelming,” Mattis said in Seoul before leaving for Japan, where he will meet the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, and the country’s foreign and defence ministers.
Abe, who claimed to have established a rapport with Trump during their first meeting in New York last November, will be buoyed by reports that Mattis does not intend to broach the subject of host-nation payments towards supporting almost 50,000 US troops based in Japan.
The US also has 28,500 troops in South Korea, mostly ranged along the heavily armed border separating it from the North.
Japan has said that it pays its fair share towards maintaining a US troops presence, mainly on the southern island of Okinawa.
Abe, who is to meet Trump in Washington next week, told MPs he would remind Mattis about “the significance of the Japan-US alliance”.
Mattis’s remarks in Seoul come amid concern that North Korea could be preparing to test a new ballistic missile, in what could be an early challenge for Trump’s administration.
North Korea, which regularly threatens to destroy South Korea and its main ally, the United States, conducted two nuclear tests in 2016 and more than 20 missile tests, in defiance of UN resolutions and sanctions.
In his New Year’s speech the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, said Pyongyang was in the “final stages” of developing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Trump responded with a tweet that said “It won’t happen!” but has not explained how he would prevent a North Korean ICBM test launch.
The North appears to have also restarted operation of a reactor at its main Yongbyon nuclear facility that produces plutonium suitable for its nuclear weapons programme, according to US thinktank 38 North.
Mattis said: “North Korea continues to launch missiles, develop its nuclear weapons programme and engage in threatening rhetoric and behaviour.”
North Korea’s actions have prompted the US and South Korea to respond by bolstering defences, including the deployment of a US missile defence system, known as terminal high-altitude area defence (Thaad) in South Korea later this year.
Mattis and his South Korean counterpart, Han Min-koo, on Friday agreed to deploy Thaad “as a defence system solely against North Korea’s missile threat”, the South Korean defence ministry said in a statement.
China has objected to Thaad, saying it will destabilise the regional security balance, and some South Korean opposition leaders have called for it to be delayed or cancelled.
Han said the agreement on Thaad indicated that South Korea would continue to enjoy strong US support under Trump. “Faced with a current severe security situation, secretary Mattis’s visit to Korea … also communicates the strongest warning to North Korea,” he said.
Once fully developed a North Korean ICBM could threaten the United States, which is about 9,000km away (5,500 miles). ICBMs have a minimum range of about 5,500km (3,400 miles) but some can travel 10,000km (6,200 miles) or more.
Former US officials and other experts have said the United States essentially has two options when it comes to trying to curb North Korea’s fast-expanding nuclear and missile programmes: negotiate or take military action.
Some analysts say China’s opposition to Thaad makes it less likely that Beijing will act to rein in North Korea – a demand made by Trump and Barack Obama.
“Deepening tensions between China and the US adds to the North’s strategic value in the eyes of China,” said Lee Ji-yong, a professor at the Institute for Foreign Affairs and Security. “It will make it more difficult for the US to persuade China to cooperate in pressuring the North to give up its nuclear arsenal.
3 February 2017