- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 14, 2018

The U.S. and its Pacific allies should back Washington’s decision to suspend military drills with South Korea, to give Pyongyang a chance to prove whether they are serious about bringing peace to the peninsula, retired U.S. Pacific Command chief Adm. Harry Harris told Congress Thursday.

“I think we are in a dramatically different place. I think the whole landscape has shifted and I believe that we should give exercises, major exercises, a pause, to see if Kim Jong-un, in fact, is serious,” he said Thursday during his confirmation hearing to be the next U.S. ambassador to South Korea.

The move to indefinitely suspend large-scale war games between the U.S. and Seoul, ordered Tuesday by the Trump White House shortly after the landmark denuclearization summit with the North, would not harm overall relations with South Korea, he told members of the Senate Foreign Relations committee.

“I’m convinced that our alliance commitments to South Korea remain ironclad and have not changed,” the former four-star admiral said, noting that routine military engagement with American and South Korean forces would continue unabated.

His comments came shortly before Defense Secretary James Mattis spoke with his South Korean counterpart Thursday, to discuss the ramifications of the Singapore summit on U.S.-ROK relations.

Mr. Mattis and Defense Minister Song Young-moo “discussed their mutual support to ongoing diplomatic efforts, to include how we are working together to fulfill the President’s guidance on … combined military exercises,” according to a Pentagon readout of the phone call.

Mr. Mattis “reaffirmed the ironclad U.S.-ROK alliance [and] both pledged to continue working closely together towards regional peace and stability,” it added.

Mr. Harris, who has been pegged by the Trump White House to be the next U.S. ambassador to South Korea, had developed a reputation for his hawkish viewpoints on expanding Chinese influence in the region while in uniform.

Mr. Harris’ comments Thursday during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations committee are the latest example of the thawing of relations between Washington and Pyongyang in the wake of Tuesday’s summit in Singapore.

The State Department and Pentagon had been seemingly caught unaware of Mr. Trump’s cancellation of U.S. military drills on the peninsula. American defense officials were in the midst of planning for the next major exercise, dubbed Ulchi Freedom Guardian, which was slated to begin in July.

Mr. Trump characterized the drills as “provocative” and a costly byproduct of the Cold War-era strategy being imparted by U.S. military leaders on the peninsula. Mr. Kim and others in the North Korean regime have repeatedly cited the provocative nature of the exercises in its criticism of U.S. military operations in the region.

But this week, U.S. military officials pushed back on the notion that Defense Secretary James Mattis or other senior Pentagon leaders had not been consulted prior to the White House’s decision to nix the war games. Mr. Mattis and top national security officials had been kept in the loop on the negotiations and subsequent decisions, officials said.

Pentagon leaders have admittedly stayed on the sidelines in the run-up to the Singapore talks, deferring to U.S. diplomats led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to take the initiative with the North, Mr. Mattis said Monday, adding that the Defense Department team is monitoring the talks from Seoul “to make sure the military factors are being considered [in the] … continuity of effort in Singapore.”

“You have to allow the diplomats to frame the issues,” he said. “You have to get that part right before” discussions veer into specific issues concerning the future of the U.S. presence on the peninsula.”

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