U.S. Defense Chief Reassures Asia Allies of Protection Against North Korean Nukes

  • ‘I want there to be no misunderstanding during the transition’
  • Trump’s attacks on allies have raised concerns in the region

James Mattis.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

New Defense Secretary James Mattis reassured allies in Asia that the U.S. would protect them against all threats -- including a nuclear attack from North Korea -- after President Donald Trump’s comments raised concerns.

Mattis, who was making his first overseas trip to South Korea and Japan, said Trump’s administration was committed to expanding defense ties between the Northeast Asian nations. In a meeting on Friday night with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was set to meet Trump next week, Mattis reaffirmed his support for the mutual defense treaty between the two sides.

“I want there to be no misunderstanding during the transition in Washington,” Mattis told reporters during the meeting with Abe. “We stand firmly, 100 percent shoulder-to-shoulder with you and the Japanese people."

Mattis’s remarks come as Trump’s salvos against historical allies rattle policy makers in Asia who have depended on the U.S. to maintain stability in the region since World War II. Trump moved to mend fences with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Thursday after criticizing a refugee resettlement deal, remarks that came a few days after he accused Japan of manipulating its currency.

Abe, who pushed back against Trump’s comments earlier in the week, told reporters on Friday that he appreciated Mattis’s picking Japan as one of his first stops. Both Japan and South Korea rely on the U.S. for a “nuclear umbrella” to protect against threats from China and North Korea.

Earlier on Friday, Mattis reaffirmed a commitment to put a missile-defense system known as Thaad in South Korea, accusing Kim Jong Un’s regime of “threatening rhetoric and destabilizing behavior.”

“America’s commitments to defending our allies and to upholding our extended deterrence guarantees remain ironclad,” Mattis said in Seoul. “Any attack on the United States, or our allies, will be defeated, and any use of nuclear weapons would be met with a response that would be effective and overwhelming.”

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