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After A Stop In China, Defense Secretary Mattis Heads To South Korea


Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is on an overseas trip visiting China, South Korea and Japan. In South Korea, he reassured allies that the United States is going to maintain its security commitment to the region. This is after President Trump's abrupt decision to suspend annual joint military exercises with South Korea. Joining us from Seoul is NPR's Elise Hu.

Hi, Elise.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Hi, there.

GREENE: Just tell me, if you can, what was Secretary Mattis' goal on this trip and on this stop in South Korea?

HU: It's really sort of alliance maintenance. U.S. and South Korea, they are longtime security allies. But leaders here in South Korea were taken aback when President Trump unilaterally announced the end of the joint U.S.-South Korea military drills after his June 12 summit with Kim Jong Un. North Korea, of course, has long opposed these exercises, saying they're provocative. So it was rather surprising that President Trump echoed that North Korean line when he announced that he was suspending them. But Jim Mattis today made the point that this suspension of the exercises, or war games, as Trump calls them, does give diplomats some room to do their work.


JIM MATTIS: 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 peninsula.

GREENE: OK. So room for diplomacy, Mattis says. But is South Korea going to be prepared enough in the absence of these exercises if things get tense again? I mean, there's been these cycles of peace and then hostility over the years, right?

HU: Right. And so that's the other thing that Jim Mattis is doing here in South Korea and then tomorrow in Japan. You know, he's really sort of reassuring the allies that the regional defense commitment is unchanged, that troop levels are remaining the same. The U.S. has 28,500 service members stationed here in South Korea. And Mattis said just hours ago in Seoul that the U.S. commitment includes keeping the current U.S. force levels the same. And for his part, the head of U.S. Forces Korea, General Brooks, did say that he didn't expect an end to all joint exercises in the future but just that this suspension of these key annual drills that Trump calls war games does, you know, serve the diplomatic purpose for now.

GREENE: But even with those reassurances from the United States, I mean, you mentioned that this promise from Trump to cancel these military exercises came as a surprise. Does South Korea have to do something? Do they have to make different kinds of preparations, maybe, to take on a bigger role, you know, with the military in the region?

HU: That is the subject of a lot of discussion here in Seoul. And it's something that both sides are talking about. Jim Mattis is here amid ongoing negotiations between the U.S. and South Korea on who pays what for the U.S. bases here. They are cost-sharing negotiations. The share the U.S. pays for bases is something President Trump complained about during the 2016 election.

For Seoul, it wants to take over wartime military command from the U.S. by 2023. That means South Korea would get full control of its own military in the event of war by that year.

GREENE: You know, Elise, we're going to have to stop there, sadly. But much more to talk about. NPR's Elise Hu in Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOMAK'S "FORCE FOR TRUTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.