(4th LD) Trump reiterates 'ironclad commitment' to defend S. Korea: White House
(ATTN: ADDS more info in paras 14-25)
WASHINGTON/SEOUL, Jan. 30 (Yonhap) -- U.S. President Donald Trump reaffirmed Washington's "ironclad commitment" to South Korea's defense and agreed to take steps to bolster joint defense capabilities, the White House said Sunday.
Trump made the remark when he spoke by phone with South Korea's Acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn and discussed the importance of the alliance between the two countries, the White House said in a statement.
"President Trump reiterated our ironclad commitment to defend the (Republic of Korea), including through the provision of extended deterrence, using the full range of military capabilities. The two leaders agreed to take steps to strengthen joint defense capabilities to defend against the North Korean threat," the statement said.
The two leaders also discussed U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis' upcoming trip to South Korea next week and noted the trip "reflects the close friendship between our two countries and demonstrates the importance of the U.S.-ROK alliance," the White House said.
Trump and Hwang "pledged to advance mutual security and prosperity," it said.
Hwang congratulated Trump on his inauguration and Trump wished Hwang and the South Korean people a prosperous and happy Lunar New Year, the White House said.
The phone conversation came amid heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un threatened in his New Year's Day address to test-fire an intercontinental ballistic missile apparently capable of reaching the U.S.
Hwang has been serving as the acting president since President Park Geun-hye was impeached by parliament over corruption allegations on Dec. 9.
In a separate press release, Hwang's office quoted Trump as saying the U.S. will always be with South Korea "100 percent," and that the South Korea-U.S. relationship will be "better than ever before."
During the 30-minute conversation, Hwang called on Trump to work together to further strengthen what he termed the comprehensive strategic alliance.
The acting president also stressed the need for joint efforts to induce North Korea's denuclearization and for a strong response if Pyongyang engages in yet another provocation.
Hwang, in addition, told Trump about Seoul's position on the planned deployment of a U.S. missile defense system to South Korea, which China, along with some liberal politicians, has strongly opposed. Hwang has defended the deployment plan as a "necessary self-defense" measure.
The acting president also voiced hopes that Trump will visit South Korea as soon as possible, while Trump said he wants to meet Hwang in the near future.
Observers said the phone talks helped ease lingering concerns that the impeachment of the president would have a negative impact on policy coordination between the allies, particularly at a time when the North's military threats continue to escalate.
"It seems that the U.S. side looked at Acting President Hwang in terms of a system rather than an individual," a diplomatic source told Yonhap News Agency, declining to be named.
"I think the talks helped ease worries about whether communication between the leaders of the two nations will be smooth under the acting president," he added.
A series of remarks that Trump made during the conversation also underscored the significance he attaches to the bilateral alliance and joint efforts to tackle security threats from the North, some analysts said.
Long before Trump's inauguration on Jan. 20, senior Seoul officials contacted Trump's key security aides such as National Security Advisor Mike Flynn to highlight the importance of the alliance and bilateral cooperation in handling Pyongyang's nuclear conundrum.
Alarmed by a series of campaign remarks by Trump that were skeptical of military alliances and trade deals with American allies and partners, Seoul has been trying to maintain close ties with Washington.
Trump's mention of the extended deterrence was welcomed by security officials here. Extended deterrence is Washington's state commitment to mobilizing all of its military assets, both conventional and nuclear, to defend its Asian ally.
"The concern that the alliance could waver following the inauguration of President Trump is, for now, a misplaced one," an official at Seoul's Ministry of National Defense said on condition of anonymity.
The two sides are expected to further strengthen their policy coordination in the upcoming ministerial-level talks. Aside from the defense ministers' meeting planned for next month, their foreign ministers are also expected to meet early this year.
Meanwhile, some observers cautioned against the possibility that Trump's phone diplomacy with the leaders of Japan, Russia and South Korea could be part of his plan to encircle an increasingly assertive China.
Tensions have been building between the U.S. and China over a series of issues, including trade and territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Trump already had a phone conversation with Park on Nov. 10 (Korea time), days after his election victory. During the conversation, the Republican leader said the United States will be "steadfast and strong" in defending against a provocative North Korea.
South Korea's Acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn speaks with U.S. President Donald Trump over the phone at his office in Seoul on Jan. 30, 2017, in this photo, released by the Prime Minister's Office. (Yonhap)