Mattis, in South Korea, Affirms ‘Ironclad’ Alliance Despite Halt to Drills

Mattis, in South Korea, Affirms ‘Ironclad’ Alliance Despite Halt to Drills

SEOUL, South Korea — Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis started Thursday morning ensconced in meetings with high-ranking Chinese military officials in Beijing, navigating a thin line between relationship-building and military posturing.

By the afternoon he was standing beside his South Korean counterpart in Seoul, reaffirming a commitment to one of the United States’ closest allies amid moves to halt North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

The meetings come as military officials in Seoul and Washington wrestle how to follow this month’s talks in Singapore between the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, and President Trump. Hopes of an enduring peace between the two Koreas remain riddled with suspicion of Mr. Kim’s sincerity about dismantling a decades-old nuclear program that has long been a hallmark of his family’s dynasty.

During his brief visit to Seoul, the South’s capital, Mr. Mattis said that the United States would maintain current troop levels in South Korea and offered assurances that the two nations’ alliance was still “ironclad” despite the recent cancellation of a massive joint military exercise. That surprise concession came during the Trump-Kim talks and left future military training in limbo in the hopes of helping advance North Korea’s denuclearization.

“The U.S. will continue to use the full range of diplomatic and military capabilities to uphold this commitment,” Mr. Mattis said of the alliance with South Korea before his roughly hourlong meeting with Defense Minister Song Young-moo.

“The recent decision to suspend the Freedom Guardian exercise creates increased opportunity for our diplomats to negotiate, increasing prospects for a peaceful solution on the Korean Peninsula,” Mr. Mattis said.

Freedom Guardian typically involves about 70,000 American and South Korean troops. Critics of the suspension of annual drills worry that military readiness on the peninsula could ultimately decline if many future opportunities for joint training are lost. Still, rifts between South Korean and American troops would probably take months — if not years — to appear.

With more than 28,000 American troops stationed in the South, Mr. Mattis said that both nations’ forces “remained united, vigilant and ready to defend against any challenge.”

Another consequence of the Trump-Kim summit meeting is that preparations are being made to transfer the remains of American service members left in North Korea after fighting in the Korean War stopped in the early 1950s. The transfers would satisfy a pledge by Mr. Kim as a sign of newfound good will toward Washington.

Mr. Mattis is to head next to Japan, where he will meet with defense officials. They are likely to discuss many of the same issues that were at the forefront of his earlier stops in China and South Korea, including the Chinese military buildup in nearby waters and North Korean denuclearization.

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