U.S. and South Korean armies conduct Combined Arms Collective Training Exercise in Paju, South Korea.(Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg)

Trump Nominee Says Exercises With South Korea Can Be Paused

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump’s pick to be envoy to South Korea told lawmakers that he believes major U.S. military exercises with South Korea can be paused to give negotiations with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un time to succeed.

"I think we’re in a dramatically different place, I think the whole landscape has shifted," retired Admiral Harry Harris, the former head of Pacific Command, told lawmakers at his confirmation hearing on Thursday. “We should give major exercises a pause to see if Kim Jong Un is serious about his part of the negotiations."

Trump has faced growing criticism of his decision this week to suspend major military exercises with South Korea without securing concrete commitments on North Korea’s plans to verifiably eliminate its nuclear weapons program. Harris said that while he was previously outspoken about the need to continue military exercises on the Korean peninsula, the U.S. would still maintain more regular training programs and could freeze larger-scale exercises without suffering ill effects.

Democrats, including New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, questioned whether the U.S.’s gamble on trusting Kim would bear fruit given the regime’s history of reneging on previous agreements on nuclear weapons.

"I think the president blindsided everyone, including South Korea, when he carelessly conceded to Kim Jong Un this week something North Korea has long wanted -- the cessation of U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises in exchange for, well, apparently nothing," Menendez said.

That thought was echoed by Republican Senator John McCain, a member of the committee who has been battling brain cancer back home in Arizona.

“Suspending U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises is a mistake,” McCain said in an emailed statement after the hearing, which cited North Korea’s “aggressive behavior” as a threat to peace. “Until North Korea takes concrete steps to change that, no concessions should be made, and the sanctions must continue."

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking to reporters in Seoul after the summit, said that the language used in the 1 1/2 page document Trump and Kim signed encompassed U.S. demands for denuclearization, even though they weren’t spelled out. He added that he expects North Korea to take the major steps toward nuclear disarmament during Trump’s first term.

“I suppose we could argue semantics, but let me assure you it’s in the document,” Pompeo said. “I am confident that they understand what we’re prepared to do, the handful of things that we’re likely not prepared to do.”

Harris, 61, attended the U.S. Naval Academy and was the first Asian American in the service’s history to achieve the rank of admiral. He had previously been Trump’s nominee for ambassador to Australia, but he was moved to the South Korea post after Pompeo succeeded Rex Tillerson as top U.S. diplomat. After the Senate Foreign Relations Committee votes on his nomination, the full Senate will weigh in on whether he is confirmed.

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