Special to WorldTribune.com
By Donald Kirk
SINGAPORE – U.S. and South Korean military people are deeply concerned about the prospect of giving up joint military exercises while the presidents of both their countries remain convinced that North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Un is really going to get rid of his nuclear program.
Senior members of the armed forces of both the U.S. and South Korea doubt if Kim will take meaningful steps toward denuclearization even though he may make some gestures that give an appearance of living up to the commitment to “complete denuclearization” that he has made in summits first with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-In and then with U.S. President Donald Trump. The Americans are waiting anxiously for a decision by Moon that may set the course for the U.S.-South Korean alliance for the next few years.
The Americans believe the best they can expect is for Moon to decide on suspension of exercises while waiting to see if North Korea takes the first small steps to giving up up its nukes and the long-range missiles for sending them to distant targets.
U.S. and South Korean officials insist, as they have for years, that the relationship between their two governments is “iron clad,” but military officers, both American and Korean, are having difficulty figuring out the real thinking of President Moon Jae-In and his top advisers and aides.
In an effort at attempting to get along with President Moon, the retired U.S. Navy admiral whom Trump is appointing as ambassador to South Korea said in Washington that the U.S. should “give exercises, major exercises, a pause.”
Harry Harris, formerly commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, though known as a hard-liner, told U.S. senators it would be a good idea “to see if Kim Jong-Un is in fact serious about his part of the negotiations.”
Although Harris has appeared quite hawkish, he acknowledged, in a hearing conducted by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that “we are in a dramatically different place” as a result of the summit here between Trump and Kim. The committee is expected to approve Harris as ambassador to Korea in the near future.
On that note, Harris hopes to strike up a great relationship with President Moon while coordinating relations between American and South Korea forces. U.S. officials expect Moon will decide in the next few days whether to suspend joint exercises, including annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian games scheduled in August. Moon has said he will order a careful review of the advisability of suspending the war games
The U.S. and South Korea may well come up with a compromise formula under which troops from both countries can conduct exercises simply to maintain “regular readiness.” Commanders regard drills as essential in order for forces from both countries to be able to coordinate with one another. They also warn that troops, if always confined to duties on military bases, will simply be unprepared to fight if the seemingly warm relationship formed by Trump and Kim in their summit here breaks down.
Moon and his advisers do not appear in a hurry, however, to cancel military exercises altogether. Although Moon is a liberal, elected president more than a year ago after nine years of conservative rule, he has called for strengthening South Korea’s armed forces while insisting on CVID, complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of the North’s nuclear program. The fact that the statement signed by Trump and Kim did not use the term CVID has fueled fears that Kim will not live up to what Trump believes is his commitment to denuclearization.
Trump, moreover, shocked both Americans and Koreans by saying that the U.S. would no longer join in “war games.” He and Kim both said they reached that understanding in their talks.
Aides of President Moon have been quick to point out, however, that the future of U.S. forces in South Korea is not to be considered in talks between the U.S. and North Korea. Since the U.S. and South Korea are bound by military alliance, they say it’s up to U.S. and South Korean leaders to decide between themselves whether to conduct war games.
Americans and South Koreas also say they have not begun to discuss whether to reduce the number of Americans here from the present level of 28,500. Trump in his remarks after the summit said he believed more Americans might be pulled out of Korea, but he also said much depended on steps by the North Koreans to draw down their nuclear program.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sought to clear up misunderstandings stemming from the summit when he stopped in Seoul for talks with Korea’s foreign minister, Kang Kyung-Wha and Japan’s foreign minister, Taro Kono. He got across the view that Kim was totally committed to “complete denuclearization,” indicating it was the same as CVID, and insisted the U.S. would not relax on sanctions until the North had “completely denuclearized.”
Pompeo carried this message to China, where he met President Xi Jinping as well as China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi. Pompeo is assumed to have urged them to join in persuading Kimn Jong-Un to live up to the impression that he has created that he really is going to do away with his nuclear and missile program. He also presumably urged them not to relax sanctions, but the Chinese have already made clear they are not going to enforce them so severely as long as the North refrains from testing nukes and missiles.
Pompeo while in Seoul forecast “major disarmament” in North Korea’s nuclear and missile program, and conventional weapons too, during Trump’s current term as president. Others in the U.S. administration, however, believe North Korea will cling to its nukes and do very little about cutting down the size of its armed forces, about 1.2 million strong, while giving an appearance from time to time of cooperating.