Korea-U.S. call affirms Thaad

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Korea-U.S. call affirms Thaad

Seoul and Washington agreed Tuesday to strengthen their alliance against North Korean provocations and successfully deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) antimissile system to South Korea this year as planned.

The joint decision was reaffirmed in a 30-minute phone call between South Korean National Defense Minister Han Min-koo and U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis.

The call was meant to lay the groundwork for a bilateral meeting between Han and Mattis on Friday.

Mattis, a retired four-star Marine general, is expected to arrive in Seoul on Thursday for a two-day visit, his first overseas trip since taking office on Jan. 20 after replacing Ashton Carter.

South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense said in a statement that the two did not discuss U.S. President Donald Trump’s comment to make its allies pay up more for the cost of maintaining troops in their respective regions, a campaign pledge that stroke a nerve for many Korean nationals who think the country is already paying too much.

Han was said to have welcomed Washington’s decision to send Mattis to South Korea for his first visit abroad, contending it will send a “strong message” to Pyongyang.

Mattis replied by saying that the U.S. is well-informed of North Korea’s nuclear missile threats and that South Korea was chosen as its first destination because it deemed it crucial that the Seoul-Washington alliance improve further, the ministry said.

On his first day here, Mattis is expected to pay a courtesy call to Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, the acting president, and also Kim Kwan-jin, head of the National Security Office.

In the evening, he will have dinner with Defense Minister Han.

On Friday morning, Mattis will hold a bilateral meeting between Han and then visit the Seoul National Cemetery for a wreath-laying ceremony. He will fly to Japan later that day.

In Tokyo, the Pentagon chief is expected to hold talks with Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada and pay a courtesy call to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, according to Japanese media.

Citing unnamed government sources in Japan and the U.S., the Japan Times reported Tuesday that Mattis “will not ask” Seoul and Tokyo to pay a bigger share of the expenses associated with hosting U.S. forces on their soil.

The visit comes amid heightened tension on the Korean Peninsula after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un declared in his New Year’s speech on Jan. 1 that the regime was in its “final stage” of test-firing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the first of its kind if Pyongyang actually follows through.

Seoul has yet to acknowledge detecting any hints that the North was actually preparing a test-fire, although several military sources here claim to have discovered two new missiles along North Korea’s eastern coastlines that could be an ICBM under work.

Pyongyang said through its state media that it will test an ICBM “any time, any where” Kim wishes.

BY LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]

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