Asia Pacific

Top U.S. military brass cautiously optimistic on North Korean diplomacy despite claim Kim won't relinquish his nukes

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

The top U.S. military commander for Asia and the head of American forces in South Korea have both expressed rare cautious optimism on diplomatic progress with North Korea while also reiterating earlier intelligence assessments that the country was unlikely to relinquish its nuclear arsenal.

During spoken testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Adm. Philip Davidson, head of the Indo-Pacific Command, lauded “significant progress” made over the past year ahead of a fast-approaching Feb. 27-28 summit in Vietnam between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea leader Kim Jong Un.

“I am optimistic about another U.S.-North Korea summit,” he said in written testimony, noting some steps the North has taken so far, including what he said was the “reversible” destruction of tunnels at its nuclear testing site in Punggye-ri.

However, Davidson also expressed doubts about North Korean intentions, saying that “much needs to be done to make meaningful progress.”

“USINDOPACOM’s assessment on North Korean denuclearization is consistent with the Intelligence Community position,” he wrote, using the acronym for the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. “That is, we think it is unlikely that North Korea will give up all of its nuclear weapons or production capabilities, but seeks to negotiate partial denuclearization in exchange for U.S. and international concessions.”

This echoed U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who told Congress last month that the intelligence community believed Pyongyang was unlikely to give up all its nuclear weapons and that it had continued activity inconsistent with pledges to denuclearize made during the first Kim-Trump summit in Singapore last June.

Davidson also noted that North Korea had demanded “corresponding” U.S. steps and that Kim had warned in a New Year’s speech of a potential “new path,” which could indicate an eventual return to weapons testing, if he was not satisfied with the negotiations.

Kim pledged in Singapore to work toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and in September expressed willingness to permanently dismantle facilities at his country’s Nyongbyon nuclear site, a step that he said was conditional on reciprocal U.S. moves.

U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun held three days of talks in Pyongyang last week to prepare for the second summit, which he said would include talks on such corresponding steps.

Biegun reportedly told a South Korean parliamentary delegation visiting Washington that in Pyongyang the two sides agreed not to negotiate, but to make clear their respective positions.

The South’s Yonhap news agency said members of the parliamentary delegation quoted Biegun as saying that while there had been agreement on the summit agenda, the two sides would seek to narrow their differences in the next round of talks scheduled for next week.

“With only two weeks until the summit, it will be difficult to resolve all the tricky issues, but there’s a chance if we can agree on a time line (for denuclearization),” a South Korean delegation member quoted Biegun as saying.

At the same Senate hearing Tuesday, army Gen. Robert Abrams, the commander of U.S. forces in South Korea, called the second Kim-Trump meeting a “positive sign of continued dialogue,” which he said has “contributed to marked reduction of tensions on the peninsula” and helped push through more cooperation and “incremental” steps and confidence-building measures — “essential ingredients to making history on the peninsula.”

The positive, but measured, words from the top military brass was unusual, experts said, because it has traditionally been more suspicious of North Korean actions.

Still, Abrams retained plenty of skepticism for the North, noting a lack of steps toward giving up its nuclear program.

“We have not observed activity that’s consistent with a full-court press on denuclearization,” he said.

Most experts have long believed that the Kim would not part with his “treasured nuclear sword,” which they say he views as a means of preventing regime change.

But Abrams also noted a reduction in tensions along the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas and cited Pyongyang’s unilateral decision to halt missile and nuclear tests as well as other provocative actions as progress.

The top commander noted it had been some 440 days since North Korea conducted a missile test or a nuclear weapons blast, but said the nuclear-armed nation’s existing capabilities, along with its continued development of advanced conventional systems, remain unchecked, leaving U.S. allies in Japan and South Korea at risk.

“The only observable change has been a reduction in the attention and bellicosity the regime layers onto its military activities. Since the end of 2017, Pyongyang has reduced its hostile rhetoric and halted media coverage of Kim Jong Un’s attending capstone events such as large-scale, live-fire training or special operations raids on mock-up alliance targets,” Abrams said.

However, he called it “too soon to conclude that a lower profile is indicative of lesser risk.”

On the subject of joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises, which the North has denounced as rehearsals for invasion, Abrams said that U.S. Forces Korea “are innovating and evolving our approach by tuning four dials that adjust exercise design and conduct — size, scope, volume, and timing.”

Adjustments to these dials, he said, “allows exercise design to remain in tune with diplomatic and political requirements without sacrificing the training of essential tasks.”

Pyongyang has repeatedly urged the Washington and Seoul to halt the drills — which it has called “hostile acts” — a request Trump largely granted after his first meeting with Kim.

At the hearing, Abrams was also asked to characterize the increasingly souring Japanese-South Korean relationship, and whether the devolving ties could harm U.S. security goals on the peninsula and in the larger region.

Abrams acknowledged what he called “long-term items of friction between those two countries,” but said military-to-military ties between the two remained strong.

“Occasionally (the relationship) flares up with misunderstandings between the two that are exacerbated by topics of the current day and those only serve to reinflame those old grievances,” Abrams said.

But on the military front, he was clear: “We continue to see cooperation and commitment on both sides, because they both understand that there are much bigger concerns for them to worry about than some of their long-term frictions.”

The two neighbors are embroiled in a row over a radar lock-on of a Japanese surveillance plane by a South Korean warship and over long-festering historical issues.