Carter reaffirms US commitment to South Korea
SEOUL— Defense Secretary Ash Carter reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to South Korea amid concerns over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs while skirting sensitive domestic and regional issues Friday.
Carter told reporters he had “very productive meetings” with President Park Geun-hye and Defense Minister Han Minkoo at the presidential Blue House earlier in the day.
“We reaffirmed our country’s commitment to this strong alliance especially in new domains in cyberspace and science,” he said.
Cybersecurity has rapidly grown as a subject of interest in both countries as North Korea has been blamed for high-profile hacks on South Korean government and business sites, as well as Sony.
Carter described his discussions as “candid” on the “North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile threats to South Korea and the U.S. homeland.”
North Korea has carried out three increasingly powerful underground nuclear tests, but it is unclear how close it is to making a bomb small and sturdy enough to fit in a warhead and survive the rigors of a missile launch.
The North successfully launched a three-stage missile two years ago.
On Tuesday, Adm. Bill Gortney, the head of North American Aerospace Defense and U.S. Northern Command, told reporters at the Pentagon that he thinks Pyongyang has an operational road-mobile missile that could carry nuclear weapons to the United States.
Carter said he didn’t discuss possible deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile system to the peninsula. South Korean protesters outside MND’s gates held signs against bringing it here.
“This is a program that is still in production,” he said. “We’re not at a point where it could be properly deployed,” adding that the system’s production schedule would ultimately dictate its deployment in the U.S. and anywhere else.
Another touchy subject was the Liancourt islands, known as Dokdo in Korea, which are the subject of a territory dispute between U.S. allies South Korea and Japan. A Korean journalist speculated that Carter’s previous remarks in Japan about all three countries looking toward the future also meant “letting go of the past.”
Carter said he was referring to sharing information and military operations in the future among the three nations and not about issues of the past.
He also was asked about China’s militarization in the South China Sea, where it has territorial disputes with several countries.
“We are discussing that with our friends and allies in the region,” he said, adding that the U.S. has a number of growing partners because it “does not act in a coercive manner in the Asia-Pacific region.”
Immediately after the conference, Carter left to attend a memorial in the port of Pyeongtaek for the South Korean military ship Cheonan, which was sunk by a North Korean torpedo in 2010.
Carter was to fly to Hawaii Friday after the ceremonies.