Top commander: Second Trump, Kim summit a 'positive sign,' but North Korea still a threat

The commander of U.S. troops on the Korean peninsula said Tuesday he sees a second summit between President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive landmark moments of testimony to Congress Lindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight Democrats sharpen their message on impeachment MORE and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as a "positive sign," though he says there's been "little to no verifiable change" in Pyongyang's nuclear capabilities.

“The reduction in tension on the peninsula, it’s palpable,” U.S. Forces Korea commander Gen. Robert Abrams said, noting it has been 440 days since North Korea’s last missile or nuclear test. “My personal opinion is the announcement of a second summit of President Trump and the supreme leader, Kim, is a positive sign of continued dialogue. Because it certainly beats the alternative of what we were living with in 2017.”

Still, he acknowledged North Korea remains a military threat that the U.S. must be ready for.

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“I remain clear-eyed about the fact that despite a reduction in tensions along the [demilitarized zone] and a cessation of strategic provocations coupled with public statements of intent to denuclearize, little to no verifiable change has occurred in North Korea’s military capabilities,” Abrams said during testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Trump and Kim are scheduled to meet in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Feb. 27 and 28.

It will be their second summit, after their historic meeting in Singapore last year, which was the first time a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader met face-to-face.

At the Singapore summit, Trump and Kim signed a joint statement where North Korea pledged to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.” At the time, the statement was widely criticized for failing to include any specifics on how to achieve denuclearization, such as a timeline or steps to verify disarmament.

Trump’s decision to suspend major joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises, which he announced in a press conference after the summit, was also slammed for blindsiding the Pentagon and allies, and acquiescing to the North Korean description of the drills as provocative war games.

On Tuesday, Abrams said he has been given the authority to continue planning the annual large-scale spring military exercise with South Korean forces.

“I have been given authority to continue planning for those type exercises, typically characterized as large-scale exercises,” he said. “And I have continued planning for execution of one in the spring. I’ve worked very closely with [South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff] and the [South Korea Joint Chiefs] chairman himself in that new construct and have forwarded that up to the Department of Defense and received full support to continue with our planning.”

Abrams also stressed that U.S. and South Korean forces have been conducting exercises, though at a smaller scale so as not to disrupt the diplomatic efforts.

“To be clear, there have been cancellations of some exercises that have been well publicized, but as I mentioned in my opening statement, at least since I’ve been there in November, we are continuing to train, conducting combined training and exercises with our [South Korean] counterparts,” he said. “That is continuing unabated. But it’s adjusted in accordance with some innovative things that we’ve done by adjusting size, scope, volume and the timing so that we can continue to preserve space for” negotiations.