The top U.S. military commander in South Korea said Tuesday that North Korea has made few, if any, changes to its military posture and has provided no evidence it intends to end its nuclear program since agreeing to do so in the summer.
Tensions have eased along the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea since the summit in June between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore, Army Gen. Robert Abrams, the chief of U.S. Forces Korea, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. But Kim’s regime has declined to provide proof that they had taken any irreversible steps toward denuclearization and his forces have continued to conduct “full spectrum” training exercises.
“I remain clear-eyed about the fact that despite the reduction in tensions along the [demilitarized zone] … we have observed no significant changes to size, scope, or the timing of their ongoing exercises compared to the same time period over the last four years,” said Abrams, who took command in South Korea about three months ago. “Further, North Korea’s conventional and asymmetric military capabilities along with their continued development of advanced conventional systems remain unchecked. These capabilities continue to hold the United States, [South Korea] and our regional allies at risk.”
North Korea remains the No. 1 immediate threat to American forces in the Indo-Pacific Command area of operations, said Adm. Philip Davidson, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command chief who testified alongside Abrams on Tuesday.
The observations come just weeks before Trump and Kim are set to meet face-to-face again. That summit is scheduled for Feb. 27 and 28 in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Trump has touted an optimistic view of North Korea – once proclaiming it was no longer a threat – since his first meeting with Kim. He tweeted this week that he looked “forward to seeing Chairman Kim & advancing the cause of peace!”
Abrams, Davidson and several Republican Armed Services Committee members endorsed the president’s second summit, saying they hoped to see the North Koreans commit to dismantling their nuclear programs transparently.
Several Democrat members did not express such optimism. Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said the first meeting led to “a stark and stunning lack of any action [or] progress.”
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., raised concerns that Trump could make a bad trade in the talks, such as removing American troops from South Korea.
“That action would significantly undermine regional security and our ability to fulfill our treaty obligations to South Korea,” said Reed, the top Democrat on the committee.
Following his first meeting with Kim, Trump abruptly announced he would cancel large-scale military training exercises in South Korea. North Korea agreed to return to the United States some 50 boxes of remains believed to contain the bodies of missing American servicemembers from the Korean War.
Abrams downplayed the impact of curbing those high-level exercises on U.S. and South Korean troops’ combat readiness, saying servicemembers have continued to conduct training exercises together on smaller scales. They remain prepared and capable of defending South Korean territory against an invasion from the North, he said.
Abrams also said the last time that North Korea launched a ballistic missile or conducted a nuclear weapons test was before the first Trump-Kim summit.
“Today is day 440 since the last strategic provocation of the [North Koreans] … either a missile flight test or nuclear weapons test,” he said. “The reduction in tensions on the peninsula is palpable. Along the DMZ, there has been significant reduction that has enable nation-confidence building measures … decreased the chance of mistakes, miscalculation, and continue to preserve space for the main [diplomatic] effort.”
The upcoming second summit, he said, was a “positive sign of continued dialogue.”
“It certainly beats the alternative of what we were living with in 2017,” Abrams said.
© 2019 the Stars and Stripes
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.