New U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis is to make his first overseas visit in February. Mattis is to meet with counterparts in Japan and South Korea, according to Japanese and South Korean press reports. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo
Jan. 24 (UPI) -- U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis is expected to make his first overseas visit to South Korea and Japan in February, a sign that North Korea's provocations are a top priority for the new administration of President Donald Trump, according to Yonhap news agency.
The visit is unusual given that it marks a departure from protocol.
In U.S.-South Korea relations, the first meeting after a new government comes to power in either country has typically involved the top diplomats from the U.S. State Department and Seoul's foreign ministry, followed by a summit between the leaders of the two countries.
Talks between top defense officials then follow the two meetings, as it was the case in 2013, when South Korean President Park Geun-hye was elected to office, according to Yonhap.
But political circumstances in the two countries have prevented a more customary approach to the meetings.
Park is awaiting a final decision on an impeachment from Korea's constitutional court, and a confirmation on the new U.S. secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, had been slightly delayed.
Mattis, who was officially confirmed by the U.S. Senate last Friday, is expected to meet with Seoul's Defense Minister Han Min-koo and with Prime Minister and acting president Hwang Kyo-ahn.
Hwang had said on Tuesday the security situation facing South Korea is "very severe," in response to Kim Jong Un's pledge to not stop nuclear weapons development.
A South Korean defense official who spoke to Yonhap on the condition of anonymity said Mattis' planned visit is a sign the "Trump administration is taking North Korea's threats seriously."
The deployment of the U.S. missile defense system THAAD is likely to be discussed when Mattis meets with Han.
Seoul has said THAAD would be deployed by mid-2017, but Beijing has been striking back with sanctions against South Korean companies.
It is unclear, however, whether Mattis would be raising the issue of military cost sharing that Trump mentioned in the course of the campaign, although the defense secretary had said he expects U.S. "allies and partners to uphold their obligations."
The new defense secretary has also said international alliances and security partnerships must be embraced during his confirmation hearing.
"History is clear: Nations with strong allies thrive and those without them wither," Mattis had said.