The U.S. doesn’t plan to pause military exercises near the Korean Peninsula during the Winter Olympics in South Korea, Defense Secretary James Mattis said Friday.
Pyeongchang will host the Olympics in February amid heightened tensions with North Korea, drawing international concern about safety at the games.
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U.S. military exercises in the region often provoke North Korea, whose leaders see them as preparations for an invasion, despite the U.S. saying the regularly planned training exercises seek only to increase readiness. Earlier this month, North Korean state-run media said a joint exercise between the U.S. and South Korea was pushing the country “to the brink of nuclear war.”
South Korea is reportedly considering scrapping an exercise planned for the spring to lessen the chance of conflict at the Olympics. But Mattis said the U.S. will not change its exercise schedule because of diplomatic concerns, while leaving the door open to reschedule because of other concerns, like availability of ships or local holidays.
“The rescheduling of exercises will be, as always, subject to both countries,” Mattis told reporters. “If a pause is, I’m pausing them for a period of time because of a diplomatic issue or something, no, I don’t anticipate that right now.”
North Korea has conducted a number of major missile and nuclear tests this year, including its highest-flying missile launch last month and an underground test of a hydrogen bomb in September. Asked whether he was impressed by the North Korean gains, Mattis responded, “Nothing impresses me.”
During a year-end visit with reporters at the Pentagon, the defense secretary fielded questions on a wide range of issues, including the fight against ISIS, potential transgender recruits and the effort to rebuild Syria. Among other things, he said:
— He anticipates a greater use of general purpose forces in 2018 for missions that previously involved only special forces. For example, he said, many of the forces in Africa in the Trans-Sahel region are not special forces now.
— The fight against the Islamic State is not over, despite the loss of much of the ground it once held in Iraq and Syria. But he did say that the terrorist group is “on the run.”
The group still poses a “brand threat” to inspire lone wolf attacks, but Mattis said even that ability is decreasing as the group continues to lose.
— As the effort in Syria turns to stabilizing the wartorn country, he expects to see more U.S. diplomats on the ground there that the military will need to transport and protect.
“When you bring in more diplomats, they’re working that initial restoration of services, they bring in the contractors, that sort of thing, there’s international money that has to be administered. … That is a diplomat’s job.”
— He has no message for transgender individuals who want to join the military after the court-ordered Jan. 1 deadline, and the Defense Department will obey the law.
“I don’t get into singling out and welcoming this group or that group or this gender or anything else,” he said. “That’s not my role.”
— Military “readiness is upping as we speak,” and he’ll continue doing more of the same to keep making the military more ready to respond in 2018.
“I just don’t announce all that,” he said. “I see no need to tell the enemy in advance where we’re at.”
The continuing spending resolutions haven’t impacted readiness so far this fiscal year, he said, but it would be affected if lawmakers can’t agree on fiscal 2018 spending in January.
— Reports of high civilian casualties in Yemen will not prompt the U.S. to withdraw its support of Saudi Arabia in the civil war there.
The U.S., he said, is offering support in target analysis to avoid future civilian casualties. “We’re showing them how to use intelligence so that you very precisely try to miss killing civilians.”
— He is still awaiting the results of an investigation into the October attack in Niger that killed four American soldiers, including one who was found dead two days after the incident.
And asked how he felt about his first year as secretary of defense, Mattis told reporters: “I don’t have any feelings.”