US Sees No Change in North Korean Nuclear Capability

Yokota Air Base C-130 Hercules deploy a heavy equipment payload over Gwangju AB, Republic of Korea, during Exercise Max Thunder, on April 18, 2014. Max Thunder is the air component-led portion of Exercise Foal Eagle, a series of joint and bilateral exercises that integrate ground, air, naval, expeditionary and special operations. Air Force photo by 2nd Lt. Ashley Wright.

The US military has not seen North Korea make a “verifiable change” in its nuclear capabilities since President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un first met last year, though there has been a “palpable” reduction in tension in the region, US Forces-Korea Commander Gen. Robert Abrams told Senate legislators on Tuesday.

During testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Abrams said there has not been any actual change in military capabilities or any commitment by North Korea to provide an inventory of its nuclear weapons infrastructure despite a commitment from the two countries to work together toward a stable peace.

As Trump and Kim prepare for a second summit in Vietnam later this month, the US is moving forward on planning future joint exercises with South Korea, many of which have been suspended since the initial meeting. During a press conference following the June 2018 meeting, Trump said the exercises were “tremendously expensive” and that it was “inappropriate” to have the wargames going on while negotiations were occurring. Abrams said this time around, the exercises may be more limited in scope.

The US canceled multiple large-scale exercises with South Korea last year, including Foal Eagle, Ulchi Freedom Guardian, and Key Resolve, and the Pentagon announced last year it would scale back Exercise Foal Eagle in 2019. Abrams said planning for that exercise, which previously included more than 11,000 American troops and nearly 300,000 South Korean troops, is underway

USF-K has the “full support” of the Pentagon to go forward with planning for the major spring exercise with South Korea, he said.

Abrams emphasized the US and South Korean forces have found “innovative” ways to continue training, though the “size, scope, volume, and timing” have changed. These smaller exercises have helped retain the readiness of forces deployed on the Korean Peninsula, he said.

USAF officials have said there were no immediate concerns about readiness, though they acknowledged that could change. Pacific Air Forces Commander Gen. Charles Q. Brown said in November that readiness was at a “high water” mark before the exercises were suspended, and despite the cancellations, USAF and ROKAF forces have been able to fly together in other events, such as local training and Red Flag-Alaska.