By: Donald Kirk

The incoming US defense secretary, James Mattis, made headlines in the US by differing from President-elect Donald Trump in his harsh assessment of the aggressive policy of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, but lost in the verbiage was his measured view of the rhetoric of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.

If Mattis,a retired four-star Marine general, described Russia as “the immediate threat” despite Trump’s protestations of friendship with Putin, he adopted a cautious approach toward North Korea at variance with the defiant tone of Trump’s tweets.

Far from hinting at a military response, Mattis believes that resolving the impasse with North Korea on its nukes and missiles is “going to take an international effort” by “nations in the region as well as us to work together.” Nor does he rule out renewed talks with the North: “We’re going to have to look at our negotiating stance and, working with the State Department, see if we have the right stance for the way ahead.”

This approach merited virtually no mention in reports on either his hearing before a Senate committee or the quick waiver from both houses of the US Congress on the longstanding rule that a former military officer must wait seven years after retirement before becoming secretary of defense. The impression is that Mattis, like the outgoing defense secretary, Ashton Carter, would like to avoid Korean War II – though, like the incoming secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, he would challenge China in the South China Sea.

If Mattis favors talks with North Korea, he inherits a program in which the US has been fortifying its defenses against the eventuality that the North would soon be able to affix a nuclear warhead to a ballistic missile capable of reaching the US. Such concerns do make sense considering that Kim Jong-un in his New Year’s address described the North’s long-range missile program as “in its final stages.”

Neither Mattis nor Carter seem willing, however, to accept Trump’s tweeted view that test-firing the fearsome missile was “not going to happen.”

Carter has said the US will shoot down a long-range missile, but that’s easier said than done. Nonetheless, he outlined what the US is doing about it in an address that I attended at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington before Mattis’s hearing.

In order to “stay ahead of North Korea” on ballistic missiles, he said, “We have consistently been taking steps to improve qualitatively” and “have increased the number of interceptors and the quality of their seeker warheads geared specifically to the possibility” that North Korea would be able “to deploy nuclear weapons.”

Mattis did not mention THAAD, the Terminal High Altitude Defense missile system that the US plans to deploy in South Korea, but Carter threw it into the mix as needed “for deterrence and defense.” In the next breath, he noted that “six-party talks are nowhere in sight” – an allusion to negotiations on the North’s nuclear program, last held in 2008, chaired by China, including the US, Japan, Russia and North and South Korea.

Rising tensions inevitable

In fact, tensions appear likely to increase all around the Chinese periphery while the US pursues a hardline policy against China’s newly built bases in the South China Sea as indicated in Tillerson’s hearing before a separate panel. The Chinese have made their opposition to THAAD a core issue that’s sure to diminish hopes for cooperation on the North’s nuclear program even though China voted for sanctions imposed by UN Security Council resolutions.

While Mattis hinted that the Chinese might yet join in talks on North Korea, Carter said bluntly he was “disappointed in China” for its failure to get the North to abandon its nuclear and missile program.

“They have had over the years more leverage over the problem than anyone else,” he said almost plaintively. “I certainly wish they had used it.” Indeed, he added for good measure, “My prediction is their leaders will regret that too.”

The Chinese, however, clearly believe the Americans are the ones who will be sorry for their position from Southeast Asia to the Korean peninsula.

“Unless Washington plans to wage a large-scale war in the South China Sea,” said the English-language Global Times, a fire-breathing tabloid published under the aegis of People’s Daily in Beijing, “any other approaches to prevent Chinese access to the islands will be foolish.”

As on North Korea, Mattis carefully mingled a call for diplomacy with veiled warnings of a military response in the South China Sea. “We’ve got to engage diplomatically, engage in terms of alliances, engage economically and maintain a very strong military,” he said, but “international waters are international waters, and we’ve got to figure out how do we deal with holding on to the kind of rules that we’ve made over many years.”

North Korea, meanwhile, is adopting a wait-and-see attitude.

The North’s party newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, said Obama was “leaving the White House as a loser” while Chosun Sinbo, published by the North Korean residents’ association in Japan, warned: “The upcoming Trump administration will face tragic consequences in a nuclear confrontation with the North if it fails to learn the lessons from the mistakes,” including sanctions.

The rhetoric means that Kim Jong-un will want to test Trump’s resolve, but how or when is far from clear – as indeed is the U.S. response.

Donald Kirk is a longtime journalist based in Asia and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel