SEOUL – The commander of U.S. forces in South Korea said Wednesday that he’s cautiously optimistic nuclear diplomacy will work out with North Korea. But he also said Seoul and Washington must continue to apply pressure so that “there’s not a reason or even an ability” for the North to back out.
Gen. Vincent Brooks told reporters that reports about continuing nuclear and missile development activities in North Korea show that Pyongyang currently lacks confidence that it can take real steps toward denuclearization and still be safe.
“While I do seek to have empathy to understand why North Korea is doing what it’s doing and where it’s coming from, nevertheless, this is a condition North Korea created for itself,” Brooks said at a news conference in Seoul. “They will have to take the risk to move into the direction toward peace, given that they created the circumstances we are in.”
Following a provocative year in weapons development, during which it tested a purported thermonuclear warhead and demonstrated potential capability to strike the U.S. mainland, the North has shifted to a diplomatic approach in 2018.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un held a historic summit with President Donald Trump in June. They issued aspirations for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula without describing when or how it would occur.
Post-summit talks aimed at mapping out a denuclearization process got off to a rocky start, with North Korea accusing a senior U.S. delegation led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of making unilateral demands for the country to relinquish its arsenal. North Korea has also been demanding that the United States fast-track discussions on a declaration to formally end the Korean War, which stopped with an armistice and not a peace treaty.
“The amount of progress that has been made in the relationships among countries since this time last year is perhaps not something that could have been conceived of last year and yet it has happened,” Brooks said. “But we still have to see earnest action being taken on those matters of great concern like denuclearization. There is still a need for continued pressure so that there’s not a reason or even an ability for North Korea to back up.”
Nuclear diplomacy with North Korea has been littered with failures in past decades. But Brooks said the chances of success are better this time around because of the change of governments in Washington and Seoul and also because the threat posed by the North’s nuclear and long-range missile program is greater than ever.
For diplomatic efforts to succeed, it would be critical for the allies and North Korea to overcome distrust and misperception, where “actions taken by one party are not understood the way they were intended to be by the actor when the receiver sees it,” Brooks said.
He noted that the United States and North Korea have made important trust-building steps in past weeks, such as the North returning 55 sets of remains of what are believed to be U.S. servicemen killed during the 1950-53 Korean War.
“It was a very important step, but it’s akin to one plank being put down on a long bridge that crosses a long gap of distrust,” Brooks said.
Brooks also said that closing some guard posts in the Demilitarized Zone between the Koreas as agreed by the two sides could help build trust between them.
Withdrawing some guard posts in the DMZ is a “good example” of measures aimed at reducing military tensions between the two Koreas that can also help build “some degree of trust,” Brooks said.
At general-level talks in late July, North and South Korea agreed in principle to withdraw on a trial basis some of the guard posts they each set up along the DMZ as a way to reduce military tensions on the border. South Korean Defense Minister Song Young Moo said Tuesday that Seoul will initially withdraw around 10 such posts.
Brooks, who doubles as commander of the United Nations Command, added that there may be some risks involved in the envisioned guard post closures, but that he still supports the move as it could ease some tension.
Regarding the suspension of some U.S.-South Korea joint military drills, including a major one held every August, Brooks said military exercises can be adjusted depending on what is needed diplomatically, and that U.S. forces in South Korea will still be fully ready for any contingency.
The United States and South Korea have suspended several joint exercises after Trump said immediately following his meeting with Kim that Washington would suspend joint military drills with Seoul as long as dialogue continues with Pyongyang.
“No one told me to stand down from the readiness,” Brooks said, adding that his troops will be creative in finding other ways to ensure the military’s readiness.
Analysts say a declaration to officially end the war would make it easier for Pyongyang to steer the discussions with Washington toward a peace treaty, diplomatic recognition, security assurance and economic benefits.
Washington has maintained that Pyongyang wouldn’t be offered sanctions relief and significant rewards unless it firmly commits to a process of completely and verifiably eliminating its nuclear weapons.
“There clearly is an urgency for this, especially on part of North Korea. But this is one that really has to be understood among especially the three countries — South Korea, North Korea and the United States.” Brooks said. “What it means has to be very clear, that needs to be understood in advance, and what it doesn’t mean also perhaps need to be understood.”