Robert Abrams warns Kim Jong-un nuclear advance unchecked
The top U.S. general on the Korean Peninsula told lawmakers Tuesday that North Korea’s efforts to pursue advanced military capabilities continues unchecked, despite President Trump’s diplomatic outreach to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Just weeks before the two leaders travel to Vietnam for a second summit on denuclearizing the divided Korean Peninsula, Army Gen. Robert Abrams, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that holding a second summit would be a “positive step” but conceded there is no evidence yet Pyongyang is ramping down efforts to bolster their military and nuclear programs.
Mr. Kim agreed to pursue a complete end to his nuclear weapons programs at last summer’s Singapore summit with Mr. Trump, and the North has since refrained from the missile and weapons test that brought the two countries to the brink of conflict early in Mr. Trump’s presidency.
But skeptics say Pyongyang has taken few concrete steps since Singapore to reveal and scale back its nuclear arsenal, while complaining Washington has not followed through on easing economic and military pressure on the regime.
“I remain clear-eyed about the fact that despite a reduction in tensions along the [Demilitarized Zone] and the cessation of strategic provocations ... little to no verifiable change has occurred in North Korea’s military capabilities,” Gen. Abrams told the Senate panel.
While saying there had been a lowering of tensions along the heavily armed border between North and South Korea, Pyongyang’s military capabilities, both nuclear and conventional, “remain unchecked,” he said.
Such advances “continue to hold the United States, [South Korea] and our regional allies at risk,” he added.
Gen. Abrams’ comments fall in line with recent testimony by top U.S. intelligence leaders, who testified that the North Korean regime has no plans to scale back its military capabilities or fully dismantle its growing nuclear arsenal.
“We currently assess that North Korea ... is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capability because its leaders ultimately view nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told Congress late last month.
Mr. Trump has denied he has disagreements with his intelligence agencies, while also saying the fruits of his diplomacy have been underrated.
The Trump administration’s North Korean strategy has focused on Pyongyang’s complete, verifiable abandonment of its nuclear arsenal.
The general’s testimony suggests the Trump administration is still struggling to project a consistent message with the Feb. 27-28 summit in Hanoi looming. But plans for the second meeting are proceeding apace.
Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh arrived in Pyongyang on Tuesday to discuss details of the upcoming bilateral summit with the U.S.
Mr. Kim is said to be considering a state visit to Hanoi ahead of the highly anticipated summit.
“North Korea is a friend that had helped Vietnam a lot in the past,” Nguyen Vinh Quang, Vietnam’s former top diplomatic envoy to China, told The South China Morning Post on Tuesday.
“In recent years, [North Korea] experienced hardship, being isolated on the international stage. What Vietnam can see ahead is light [and] ... North Korea’s situation can be improved.”
Mr. Minh’s visit came on the heels of a trip to Pyongyang by top U.S. envoy to the North Korean talks Stephen E. Biegun on Friday to discuss the summit’s agenda
In Washington, Mr. Trump touted Mr. Biegun’s visit on social media, tweeting: “My representatives have just left North Korea after a very productive meeting. ... I look forward to seeing Chairman Kim advancing the cause of peace!”
Also testifying Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command head Adm. Philip Davidson said he was “optimistic” about the summit but emphasized that American military readiness in the region would need to remain on high alert.
But lawmakers pressed Gen. Abrams on whether the Pentagon was being kept in the loop on the upcoming summit and whether Defense Department concerns over the regime’s military readiness would be addressed.
“I am not aware specifically” on the details of the White House’s plans, Gen. Abrams said. “I am aware that there is a commitment to continuing that dialogue that came out of the June summit, but I have not seen the specific agenda.”
North Korean forces continue to hone their combat readiness through a series of large-scale military drills on the peninsula, Gen. Abrams warned. U.S. surveillance on the regime’s annual winter war games observed “a slate of full-spectrum [combat] exercises” that is “progressing along at historic norms,” the four-star general said.
Mr. Trump has already taken the controversial step of suspending several U.S.-South Korean military exercises on the peninsula, as a goodwill gesture toward North Korea. The move was made without advanced warning to top officials at the Pentagon.
Sen. Tim Kaine, Virginia Democrat and vice presidential candidate in 2016, was one of a number of lawmakers pressing for concrete progress from Mr. Trump’s daring diplomatic gambit.
“What I am looking for is what real evidence is there of any changed [mentality] on behalf of North Korea,” he said.