The 'America First' President Sends His Defense Secretary To Asia

Feb 1, 2017
Originally published on February 1, 2017 8:21 am

President Donald Trump's "America First" pronouncements will frame the first major international trip of his administration this week, as Defense Secretary James Mattis visits South Korea and Japan.

Trump's disruptive approach to foreign policy may challenge an already shaky government in Seoul, Mattis' first stop.

"I think visiting Korea to continue with the existing agendas is an ill-advised action that in a way, ignores the Korean people's will," protester Kim Kang-yeon says. She and others are spending much of this week outside the Korean Ministry of Defense, demonstrating against the coming visit.

The current South Korean government may not last past the next few weeks. The defense minister who will meet with Mattis, and the acting president, are appointees of an impeached president, Park Geun-hye. They're placeholders, until the president's impeachment trial is over.

"So, this is a real dilemma," says John Delury, professor of international relations at Seoul's Yonsei University. "It's a real dilemma for the Americans because they're going to have a series of conversations with someone who really doesn't speak for the South Korean public."

Among the Korean public there is distrust of the new Trump administration on Korean matters. Mainly because Trump's statements have been, in the eyes of many South Koreans, inconsistent. Trump has said that he would be willing have a burger with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un — but also that the U.S.- South Korea alliance is stronger than ever.

"Trump was unexpectedly elected as the president," protester Oh Mi-jeong says. "But his eccentric actions are just unpredictable."

Which leads to another major question for the trip.

"Does Secretary Mattis actually speak for President Trump? Who's really calling the shots on American foreign policy? Those are also huge questions that affect [South Koreans'] fate," says Delury.

A fate that matters for the entire region. And given the nuclear weapons just across the border, it matters for the world.

"The Korean peninsula is arguably the security fault line for Asia. You need to be very careful in your approach," Delury says.

Both key U.S. allies — South Korea and Japan — are hoping for some clarity in what that approach will look like under Trump.

Haeryun Kang and Se-Eun Gong contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Some other news, the new defense secretary is crossing the Pacific with two questions in the air. The first is how much James Mattis really speaks for the new president. The second is how Mattis can reassure traditional U.S. allies. He's visiting Japan and South Korea. NPR's Elise Hu is in Seoul.

OH MI-JEONG: (Over loudspeaker, speaking Korean).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting, speaking Korean).

ELISE HU, BYLINE: When Defense Secretary James Mattis arrives at the South Korean Defense Ministry Friday, this daily throng of protesters will greet him. Kim Kang Yeon is one of them.

KIM KANG YEON: (Through interpreter) I think visiting Korea to continue with the existing agendas is an ill-advised action that in a way ignores the Korean people's will.

HU: What she means is the current Korean government may not last past the next few weeks. The defense minister that will meet with Mattis and the acting president are both appointees of an impeached president - Park Geun-hye. They're placeholders until the president's impeachment trial is over.

JOHN DELURY: You know, this is a real dilemma.

HU: John Delury is professor of international relations at Seoul's Yonsei University.

DELURY: It's a dilemma for the Americans because they're going to have a series of conversations with someone who really doesn't speak for the South Korean public.

HU: Among the Korean public there is distrust of the new Trump administration, mainly because Trump's statements have been so inconsistent. He has said both that he'd be willing to have a burger with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, and that the U.S.-South Korean alliance is stronger than ever. Protestor Oh Mi-Jeong takes the mic to say his statements don't add up.

OH: (Over loudspeaker, speaking Korean)

HU: "Trump was unexpectedly elected as the president," she says, "but his eccentric actions are just unpredictable." Which leads to another major question for the trip, says John Delury.

DELURY: Does Secretary Mattis actually speak for President Trump? Who's really calling the shots on American foreign policy? Those are also huge questions that affect their fate.

HU: And given the nuclear weapons just across the border, it matters for the region and the world.

DELURY: The Korean Peninsula's arguably the security fault line for Asia. You need to be very careful in your approach.

HU: Both key U.S. allies, Korea and Japan, are looking for some clarity in what that approach will look like under Trump. Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.