Political News

Trump pick for South Korea ambassador says North Korea remains a nuclear threat

Posted June 14, 2018 10:30 a.m. EDT

— Harry Harris, the Trump administration's nominee to be ambassador to South Korea, said North Korea continues to be a nuclear threat and that major military exercises should be paused to give Kim Jong Un a chance to prove whether he is "serious."

President Donald Trump announced in Singapore that the US would suspend "war games" with South Korea and Japan, taking Seoul, Tokyo, lawmakers and parts of the US military by surprise.

"In my previous capacity, I spoke very strongly about the need to continue military exercises, most notably in 2017," Harris said at his nomination hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday. But he noted that, "we were in a different place in 2017. North Korea was launching missiles ... if war wasn't imminent, it was likely."

"Today, following the summit, we are in a dramatically different place," said Harris, a former commander of Pacific Command who was an admiral when he left the Navy. "The whole landscape has shifted. I believe we should give exercises, major exercises, a pause to see if Kim Jong Un is in fact serious about his part of the negotiations." He added that, "I've spoken in the past about the need to bring Kim Jong Un to his senses and not to his knees."

"We have to continue to worry"

Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, asked Harris whether North Korea is still a nuclear threat.

President Donald Trump declared on Twitter that the country was no longer a nuclear threat and that the US is safer in the wake of his summit meeting with the North Korean leader, but Menendez noted Pyongyang still retains its missiles, its command of the nuclear fissile process and other capabilities.

"We have to continue to worry about that," Harris said.

Harris was also asked about language President Trump has used, describing the military exercises as "war games" and calling them "provocative," as China and North Korea do.

"I would call them major exercises," Harris said. And asked if they were provocative, Harris said, "they are certainly of concern to North Korea and to China, but we do them in order to exercise our ability to work and interoperate with our South Korean allies."

Harris said his understanding is that regular training and readiness and service-related exercises would continue, "but I don't know that for a fact," he said, adding that would be a decision for the administration and the Pentagon.

Harris stressed that even if some exercises are paused temporarily, "our alliance commitments to South Korea remain and are ironclad," but added that, "we do need to create some breathing space for the negotiations to continue."