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Trump-Kim summit

Trump’s nominee for US ambassador to South Korea supports ‘a pause’ in joint military exercises

Harry Harris, ex-commander of US Pacific forces, tells Senate committee Donald Trump’s pledge lets Kim Jong-un show if he ‘is serious’ about denuclearisation

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 June, 2018, 5:35am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 June, 2018, 6:25am

US President Donald Trump’s nominee for ambassador to South Korea expressed his support Thursday for Trump’s pledge to stop military exercises in the area, a concession some US lawmakers worried could weaken Washington’s alliance with Seoul against Pyongyang.

Harry Harris, a retired admiral and former commander of US Forces in the Pacific, said during his Senate confirmation hearing that the US should halt major military drills with South Korea in exchange for concrete steps by North Korea towards denuclearisation.

Trump’s vow to end South Korea military drills and pull out troops confounds Seoul

As the relations between the US and North Korea enters a “dramatically different place” after the Singapore summit, Harris said, “we should give major [military] exercises a pause to see if [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-un in fact is serious about his part in negotiations”.

Harris also declared his position on what the US seeks from Kim: “I believe that denuclearisation means complete denuclearisation of [North Korea's nuclear] equipment, equipment research, existing stockpiles and all of that”.

Harris’s nomination hearing came two days after the first meeting between a sitting US president and North Korean leader – followed by Trump’s pledge to end joint military drills with South Korea, a move that some US lawmakers found unsettling.

Trump declared his intention to stop the drills during a news conference after his meeting with Kim in Singapore, calling the joint exercises “provocative war games” which cost “a tremendous amount of money”.

North Korea regards the exercises as training for pre-emptive strikes against it.

At the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, US senators questioned Harris about his position on the president’s unilateral concession that could weaken the US-South Korea alliance.

US politicians on both sides of the aisle sceptical of Trump-Kim summit and what might follow

Bob Corker, the Oklahoma Republican who is the committee’s chairman, said he was pushing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to testify before the committee soon to learn “what actually happened” behind the closed doors in Singapore.

Bob Menendez, the New Jersey senator who is the committee’s senior Democrat, criticised Trump for not notifying South Korea and Japan, the two US allies in the region, before he announced the drills’ cancellation.

“The South Koreans didn’t know about it. The Japanese didn’t know about it,” said Menendez, who had on Tuesday called the Trump-Kim statement “anaemic” with “very little substance on anything”.

In Singapore, Kim did not commit to any concrete steps, such as a timetable to end his nuclear weapons programmes, besides reaffirming “his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula”.

North Korea expected to disarm by 2021, Mike Pompeo says as critics slam summit agreement

In response to Menendez on Thursday, Harris praised Trump’s effort to bring the North Korean leader “to his senses, not to his knees”, a reference to favouring diplomatic action over military deterrence towards Pyongyang.

Harris declined to comment whether the drills were “provocative”.

“They are certainly concerns to North Korea and China,” he said, “but we do these in order to exercise our ability to work and cooperate with our South Korean ally.”

However, during an interaction with Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, Harris emphasised that decisions on issues like military exercises and US troop levels in the Korean peninsula need to be taken together with Seoul. “These must be alliance decisions, not unilateral decisions,” Harris said.

Unanswered questions: four takeaways from the Trump-Kim summit

Without any objections expressed at the hearing, Harris’s nomination is expected to easily pass the Senate, filling a long-vacant post.

If confirmed as ambassador, Harris said, “one of my jobs is to implement policy that comes from Washington that goes to the secretary of state and the president and also stay synchronised with our South Korean ally.

“That would be a good work of diplomacy,” he added.