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Gen. Mattis Makes His First Foreign Trip As Defense Secretary

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

James Mattis is making his first foreign trip as secretary of defense. He arrived in South Korea today, and this weekend, he'll be in Japan. These two longtime U.S. allies may need some reassuring right now. President Trump said during the presidential campaign he might withdraw U.S. forces from South Korea unless Seoul forks over more money to keep them there. And he said he might support both countries acquiring nuclear weapons rather than continue to rely on U.S. protection. Joel Wit worked at the State Department for more than a decade and specialized on North Korea. He joins us now in the studio. Thanks for coming in this morning.

JOEL WIT: Good morning.

MARTIN: What kind of reassuring does Secretary Mattis need to do on this trip?

WIT: Well, I think he needs to reassure them in the face of a growing North Korean nuclear and missile threat. And it seems like the reassuring is that he's going to go there, listen to their concerns, and they may come up with some joint plan of action to strengthen defenses against North Korea. But this is just the very beginning of a process of reassuring our allies that's going to stretch on for a number of years.

MARTIN: Is it significant to you that this is the first foreign trip for a Trump Cabinet nominee? After all, President Obama, in the last few years of his second term, really tried to focus on Asia - focus U.S. foreign policy on Asia. Are we seeing a continuation of that?

WIT: Well, it is significant because I think in the media it was stated that before President Obama left office, he told President Trump that North Korea was the most significant near-term threat that he was facing. So it sounds like Trump was listening and Mattis is going off to figure out part of a strategy of what to do about it, and that's to defend our allies.

MARTIN: But of course, Trump made these comments on the presidential campaign trail talking about how South Korea doesn't pay enough money to help support the cost of keeping U.S. troops there. How did Seoul respond to those comments?

WIT: Well, like all of our other allies, it made them very nervous. And the fact is that South Korea does pay quite a bit to defend itself and to host our troops there. For example, South Korea pays 50 percent of the costs of U.S. troops in South Korea, and they paid 90 percent of a $10 billion cost to relocate those troops recently to new bases. So they are paying their fair share.

MARTIN: They actually pay more than some other allies where we have troops.

WIT: Yes. Actually they pay more than the European allies. So I think the South Koreans, of course, found these comments very disconcerting.

MARTIN: What do we get for that investment? What does the U.S. get in return?

WIT: Well, what the U.S. gets is that our troops are there to protect our not only security interests with our close allies, South Korea and Japan, but the U.S. has enormous economic and other interests in Northeast Asia. Just think of all the trading that goes on between the United States and South Korea and Japan, and the economic ties are enormous. So we need to protect them against threats, such as North Korea and China.

MARTIN: South Korea is in a bit of a moment politically. There's some chaos there. The defense minister that Mattis is meeting with today may be gone in a few months. South Korea's president has been impeached. There's an acting president. Elections are coming. And President Trump's intentions, as we've talked about, in Asia aren't entirely clear at this moment. So when you think about all that uncertainty, what does that mean for the region?

WIT: Well, it means that Northeast Asia is going to become a much more unstable place in the next few months. And the reason why I say that is because there's going to be a change in the South Korean government. The new government is almost certainly going to have a very different policy towards North Korea, one of engaging North Korea. And it looks like the Trump administration is going in a different direction, which is to get tougher on North Korea. So you could have some serious clashes in terms of the alliance relationship between the United States and South Korea.

MARTIN: And then where is China in all this?

WIT: Well, China is being very smart. They're sort of on the sidelines right now. But they know that this change in the South Korean government is going to be to their benefit because one of the other positions likely to be taken by the new government is they want to smooth over relations with China, which have had a rocky time the past few months because the U.S. is deploying a ballistic missile defense system in South Korea that the Chinese don't like.

MARTIN: Joel Wit is with the U.S. Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies here in Washington. We've been talking about James Mattis, U.S. secretary of defense, his first foreign trip abroad. He is going to visit South Korea and Japan. Joel, thanks so much for coming into the studio today.

WIT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.