(2nd LD) U.S. defense chief in Seoul for talks over North Korea
(ATTN: ADDS Mattis' meetings in 4th para, USFK Commander Gen. Vincent Brooks comment in last 2 paras)
SEOUL, Feb. 2 (Yonhap) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Thursday began his two-day visit to South Korea in his first overseas trip aimed at underscoring the U.S. security commitment to the Asian ally amid growing threats from North Korea.
After landing at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, 70 kilometers south of Seoul, at 12:30 p.m., Mattis headed to the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) headquarters in Yongsan, Seoul, according to the defense ministry.
Mattis was briefed by USFK Commander Gen. Vincent Brooks on the security situation on the Korean Peninsula and in the region, including Seoul-Washington's joint readiness against North Korean threats that include that it is close to test-firing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the U.S. mainland, military officials said.
He then met with Acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn and National Security Office chief Kim Kwan-jin and attended a dinner event hosted by Defense Minister Han Min-koo at a Seoul hotel.
Hwang is currently serving as acting president after President Park Geun-hye was impeached by the National Assembly over a corruption scandal.
South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-koo (Yonhap)
U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis (Yonhap)
On Friday, Mattis plans to hold separate meetings with defense chief Han and Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se to discuss North Korea and alliance issues.
Mattis' trip, which also includes a stop in Japan later this week, is aimed at reassuring the key allies unsettled by U.S. President Donald Trump's campaign rhetoric accusing them of free-riding on U.S. security commitments.
During his campaign, Trump said wealthy allies like South Korea and Japan should pay more for the upkeep of American troops stationed on their soil and if not, the U.S. military should withdraw.
On the flight to Seoul, Mattis told reporters that he will talk with his South Korean counterparts about the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system "absolutely."
"It is a defensive system. There is only one reason we would have this under discussion right now -- that is, North Korea's activities," Mattis said, according to foreign media reports.
In July 2016, Seoul and Washington agreed to deploy the THAAD system to South Korea this year to better defend against North Korea's nuclear and missile threats.
But China has opposed the deployment on concerns that the move could hurt its strategic security interests. The U.S. has repeatedly stressed that the system is defensive and aimed only at deterring North Korean threats.
Asked if the U.S. will push forward the THAAD deployment as planned, Gen. Brooks told Yonhap News Agency Thursday, "We are gonna continue ... as planned."
He said in early November that he expects the advanced U.S. missile defense system to be deployed within eight to 10 months.