Defense Secretary Jim Mattis reassured South Korea on Thursday that the United States would stand by its longtime Pacific ally, pledging to talk to Seoul officials about the deployment of a missile defense system intended to combat North Korean aggression.
"Were it not for the provocative behavior of North Korea we would have no need for THAAD out here," Mattis told reporters before his arrival, referring to the U.S. Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense anti-ballistic missile system.
The visit marked Mattis' first overseas trip under the Trump administration. The retired Marine general met with senior South Korean officials, including acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn, to discuss North Korea's progression toward acquiring a nuclear weapon, the Washington Post reported.
Mattis, who will also visit Japan before returning to Washington, said he would use the trip to gauge the opinions of leaders in Seoul and Tokyo on how to best confront Pyongyang.
"Two of the most enduring alliances that we have had have been between Japan and us, and of course South Korea and the United States, and together we confront the North Korean situation," Mattis told reporters.
Tensions in the region have escalated after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un used his New Year's Day address to declare that his military was preparing to test an intercontinental ballistic missile that has the capability of reaching the U.S.
North Korea launched its fifth nuclear test in September, raising concern that the nation will become capable of hitting the U.S. mainland during President Donald Trump's first term in office.
"It is a priority for President Trump's administration to pay attention to the northwest Pacific," Mattis said. "I am going to get current by listening to them, finding out where their issues are, and then we are going to work together and strengthen our alliance."