By Cheryl Pellerin
US Vice President Mike Pence begins his first official trip to the Asia-Pacific region tomorrow to, among other things, reinforce the Trump administration’s full commitment to U.S. security alliances there, senior administration officials said Thursday.
Pence will visit top officials in Seoul, South Korea; Tokyo; Jakarta, Indonesia; and Sydney for discussions on economic engagement and evolving security challenges.
“You’ve seen the nuclear threat of North Korea,” a senior official said in a background phone call with reporters, “and we’ll reinforce those security alliances.”
Pence and President Donald J. Trump are working closely with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Corps General Joe Dunford, National Security Advisor Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster and the rest of the National Security Council to develop a military strategy for South Korea and the region as it relates to the entire national security strategy, an officials said in the call.
Discussions have had “particular emphasis on the belligerency of North Korea, [and] absolutely, we’ll be discussing that with our allies and partners at every stop,” the official added.
The National Security Council already is assessing military options, the official added, “but we’ll work that as we sit down in discussions with [Army Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, United Nations Command and Republic of Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command].”
An official on the media call said the topic of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, missile defense system probably would come up in discussions with officials in Seoul, “[and] we’re prepared to address that as well. It’s a critical point for the defense of South Korea in recognizing it’s not an offensive weapon. It’s there to prevent rockets slamming from the North Koreans.”
The two nations agreed in July on a plan to have a THAAD system on the Korean Peninsula, and the United States began shipping parts of it to South Korea last month.. China is opposed to the THAAD deployment, which it considers a threat to its own security interests, according to media reports.
The officials declined to comment on specifics of the strategy for stopping North Korea from launching ballistic missiles and testing nuclear weapons, although they said sanctions were one of the tools being considered.
“In our commitment to the Republic of Korea, we consult with them as well,” an official said. “Those discussions [are] part of the broader assessment with the National Security Council, so we wouldn’t get into the weeds in the military setting. That is the purview of the secretary of defense.”
In the broad national security discussions, an official said they’d welcome the dialogue between Pence and South Korean leaders “as a continuation of dialogue that’s already been in place.”
The overriding national security message the vice president will be taking to South Korea “is that our long alliance between the United States and South Korea is the linchpin of peace and prosperity,” an official on the call said.
“The president takes national security as a top priority,” the official added, and … we have an ironclad commitment to all of our allies in the Asia-Pacific. We take their defense very seriously, and that is unwavering.”