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(LEAD) U.S. defense chief highlights Washington's security commitment to Seoul

All Headlines 20:28 February 02, 2017

(ATTN: ADDS photo, more remarks and details in paras 6-15)

SEOUL, Feb. 2 (Yonhap) -- U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis on Thursday highlighted Washington's security commitment to Seoul under growing security threats from Pyongyang, saying his country will be "shoulder to shoulder" with its Asian ally.

During his talks with South Korea's Acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, Mattis also underscored the "priority" that the Trump administration places on the South Korea-U.S. alliance.

His remarks came amid concerns about possible shifts in the bilateral alliance, which have been triggered by Trump's election-year remarks that showed skepticism about America's security alliances and trade deals with its Asian allies and partners.

"I talked to President Trump and he wanted to make a very clear statement about the priority that we place on the alliance between our two nations," Mattis said.

South Korea's Acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn (R) speaks with U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis during their talks at his office in Seoul on Feb. 2, 2017. (Yonhap)

"Our new administration inherits a very strong, prestigious relationship between our two countries. And it's our commitment to make it even stronger, especially in the face of provocations that you face from the North," he added.

The retired Marine Corps general arrived here earlier in the day for a two-day visit for talks with top Seoul officials, including Defense Minister Han Min-koo and National Security Office chief Kim Kwan-jin. It is his first overseas trip since he took office less than two weeks ago.

Pyongyang has been ratcheting up military tensions with a threat to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile.

During the talks with Hwang, Mattis reiterated that the U.S. commitment to the defense of the South remains unchanged, the acting president's office said in a press release.

"The American view and Korean, Republic of Korea's view of Asia as a stable, prosperous, democratic, free region, we share that policy of getting into that sort of situation, but right now we have to address the reality of the threat that your country and my country face," Mattis said.

"And we intend to be shoulder to shoulder with you as we face this together," he added.

The two sides reaffirmed that the allies will push ahead with the plan to deploy a U.S. missile defense system to the Korean Peninsula to counter Pyongyang's evolving nuclear and missile threats.

The reaffirmation of the plan to install a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system here came amid strenuous opposition from China and some local politicians. Beijing has claimed that THAAD, a core element of the U.S. global missile defense program, would undermine its security interests.

Referring to the North's persistent threats, Hwang stressed the need to change Pyongyang's "strategic calculus" on its nuclear program through international sanctions and pressure.

Mattis, in response, said that no one would be able to drive a wedge between the allies, and that the U.S. will always be with South Korea, the press release said.

Hwang's office also said that the two sides shared the understanding that the bilateral alliance is "the most successful one" that seeks to not only address the North's nuclear issue, but also pursue the peaceful unification of the peninsula.

sshluck@yna.co.kr
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