South Korea and US Still Firm On North Korea Disarming: Mattis

Defense Secretary James N. Mattis speaks with members of the press at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., Jan. 5, 2018. (DoD photo by Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith)
Defense Secretary James N. Mattis speaks with members of the press at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., Jan. 5, 2018. (DoD photo by Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith)

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Friday there was little chance North Korea could use talks on the Winter Olympics as a wedge issue to set Washington and Seoul at odds on the denuclearization of the peninsula.

Mattis said he spoke Friday morning with his South Korean counterpart, Minister of National Defense Song Young-moo, and had been assured that the breakthrough talks next week between North and South Korean delegations would be strictly limited to arrangements for the Winter Olympics.

The talks would be "about the Olympics only, that's the sum total of subjects that are going to be discussed," Mattis said at a session with Pentagon reporters.

"This is by South Korean leadership telling us this --so, no, we are not concerned," Mattis said. "There's nothing where they (North Korea) can drive a wedge at all."

At the request of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, the U.S. and South Korea have agreed to postpone joint Foal Eagle military exercises during the Feb. 9-25 'Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, about 50 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone.

In a phone call Thursday, Moon and President Donald Trump agreed to "de-conflict the Olympics and our military exercises so that United States and Republic of Korea (ROK) forces can focus on ensuring the security of the Games," the White House said in a readout of the call.

Trump took credit for pressuring North Korea into the talks. In a Tweet Thursday, Trump said that "With all of the failed 'experts' weighing in, does anybody really believe that talks and dialogue would be going on between North and South Korea right now if I wasn't firm, strong and willing to commit our total "might" against the North. Fools, but talks are a good thing!"

Mattis said the postponement of the military exercises would extend for the Paralympics, which will follow the Winter Olympics and begin on March 9 and run through March 18.

"We are going to deconflict with the Olympics -- the regular Olympics and the Paralympics," Mattis said. "We're not going to be running exercises," during either event.

"We will deconflict all the way through the Paralympics," and "after that we'll work it out" on when the military exercises begin. It's not that unusual" for military exercises to be postponed at the request of the host country, he said.

In an earlier session with reporters, Mattis said of the surprise agreement to talks by North Korea that "I wouldn't read too much into it," Mattis said. "We don't know if it's a genuine olive branch."

In an address in Seoul on Thursday, the commander of U.S. forces in South Korea said he suspected that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's agreement to talks -- rather than an olive branch -- was a ploy aimed at placating China and unsettling the alliance between the U.S. and South Korea,

Army Gen. Vincent Brooks, who would command both U.S. and South Korean forces in the event of war, also called for building up defenses around Seoul.

"We can be generally pleased by the recent overtures that happened" that resulted in the talks next week, "but we must keep our expectations at the appropriate level," Brooks said.

North Korea, as evidenced by its missile launches and nuclear programs, was still determined to become a "nuclear capable" nation, and "We can't ignore that reality," Brooks said.

Brooks also said that the U.S. and South Korea could not ignore another reality in North Korea's ambition to drive a wedge between them. Brooks said he was telling his own troops to "stay ready and stay steady while providing room for diplomacy and economic actions to take effect led by our national leaders."

Brooks' suspicions about North Korea's intentions have been echoed in numerous editorials and commentaries in South Korean newspapers warning that the talks next week would only serve the North's propaganda purposes.

At the Pentagon Friday, Mattis said he agreed with Brooks that the U.S. had to be wary about North Korea's ultimate goals in agreeing to talks. "I had no concerns with his {Brooks'] statement whatsoever," Mattis said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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