WASHINGTON: Republican Senator David Perdue is “very troubled” and “surprised” by President Trump’s summit pledge yesterday to end joint military exercises with South Korea, he told reporters this morning. The blow-up at the G-7 summit is “troubling” as well, said the Georgian junior senator, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Perdue, who’d issued a laudatory pre-summit statement saying the administration “has my full confidence,” is the strongest Trump supporter so far to join a chorus of senatorial skeptics, from Trump’s GOP primary opponent Marco Rubio to liberal Democrat Diane Feinstein (see their statements below).
In Singapore, President Trump said the US would stop what he called, “the war games, which will save us a tremendous amount of money. Unless and until we see the future negotiation is not going along like it should.” Trump also characterized the joint exercises as “provocative,” a description which North Korea has used. China has pushed a “freeze for freeze” deal in which North Korean suspension of its nuclear program was matched by US suspension of conventional military exercises on the peninsula.
“I’ve never agreed with 100 percent of what this president says off the cuff like that,” Perdue told the Defense Writers’ Group. The pledge to end joint exercises with South Korea — which are deemed critical to allied military readiness — was not mentioned in the official joint statement, he noted, and therefore isn’t a binding commitment. Instead, he said, as indicated by Trump’s “unless and until,” it’s only an expression of presidential intent predicated on continued cooperation from Pyongyang. Supporting this interpretation, both the Korea government and US Forces Korea have officially stated there’s been no order to end the exercises.
The real substance, Perdue said, will come not from the four-hour summit meeting but from in-depth and difficult discussions of denuclearization led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whom the senator praised. “You’ve got to get it in Pompeo’s hands and start talking about the timeline (of when) we have to see certain things happen,” he said. “We’ve got to have access (for inspections) in a way we don’t have in Iran.”
“It’s very frustrating negotiating in that corner of the world,” cautioned Perdue. “There’s going to be fits and starts because they’re masters at this.” Perdue has traveled extensively in Asia during his long career in business and just came back from visiting top officials in South Korea, Singapore, Japan, and China.
In fact, Perdue’s done so much business abroad, and so bluntly acknowledged he’d outsourced American jobs, that it became the Democrats’ main attack against him in the 2014 election. Perdue touts himself as the only former Fortune 500 CEO in Congress and worked in business until his election as a self-proclaimed #outsider in ’14. So, while his bio calls him “an early supporter of President Donald J. Trump and…one of the President’s closest allies in the U.S. Senate,” his background also makes him one of that dying breed, a traditional internationalist Republican. “The No. 1 asset we have is our ally base,” he said this morning.
So Perdue walked careful line this morning, hesitant to criticize Trump in general but openly skeptical of specific statements. “You can have a tough trade conversation with your friends; what happened in the G-7 is a little bit troubling,” he said. “I’ve said this to the president — I would have preferred to do it in stages.” First reassure the allies “so there’s no question” about US commitment, and only then move on to tough trade negotiations.
On Korea, likewise, Perdue said, “I’m very troubled today” about the president’s pledge to end exercises. “I was surprised,” he added, that such a military concession even came up at this early stage in the talks. For now, he argued, we should only be offering economic incentives like sanctions relief, saying his conversations with North Korean defectors and refugees had convinced him “sanctions are really having a bite.”
Most of those refugees have ended up in China, which is looking with increasing anxiety at its unstable southern neighbor. Yes, Beijing and Pyongyang have been allies since 1950 — just a year after Mao seized power — when the People’s Liberation Army, already bloodied by decades of brutal civil war, launched itself into the meatgrinder of American firepower in Korea, with hundreds of thousands of Chinese casualties. But from the beginning, which Stalin urged Kim Il-Sung to invade the South and then left Mao to bail Kim out largely unaided, North Korea has been more of a liability for China than an asset.
So on a recent visit to China, Perdue said, “we were told in no uncertain terms by.…high level officials … that China supported our definition of denuclearization on the peninsula.” That’s a crucial distinction, because when the US talks about denuclearization, it means physically dismantling the North Korean program, both warheads and missiles, under strict international inspection. North Korea, by contrast, has insisted that the US “denuclearize,” which means — since the US long ago withdrew tactical nukes from the peninsula — that the US would end its alliance pledge to defend South Korea with nuclear weapons if necessary. “It’s totally premature to have that kind of conversation,” Perdue said of rolling up the US nuclear umbrella.
It’s helpful that China is leaning towards our definition of denuclearization, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re on our side. Americans tend to look at things too narrowly, Perdue said, but we can’t solve North Korea without considering the wider context of Asia, which is being reshaped by China’s increasingly assertive rise.
“I got it wrong for the first thirty years,” Perdue said frankly. “I really thought what Deng Xiaping was saying was right, that they would open up and liberalize, but now we have a President for Life over there” in Xi Jinping. China has become increasingly assertive of its economic, military, and even cultural power, to the point that many Asia countries once firmly aligned with the US now a foot in each camp, Perdue said. In particular, he said, “because of the propaganda that’s been coming out of Beijing, we are now seen as the aggressors in Asia. Some of the Southeast Asian leaders are now defending China’s moves in the South China Sea.”
“In 1789, China had largest economy in world,” Perdue said. “They feel like their rightful place is (as) the hegemon.”
Here’s some of the most significant statements we’ve seen so far from other senators:
Sen. Marco Rubio, who clashed bitterly with Trump in the 2016 primaries:
Should be skeptical of any deal with #KJU Limits to future strategic weapons instead of eliminating current program not an acceptable outcome. Hope I’m wrong but still believe they will never give up nukes & ICBM’s unless believe failure to do so triggers regime ending reaction
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) June 12, 2018
One more thing about KJU. While I know @potus is trying to butter him up to get a good deal, #KJU is NOT a talented guy. He inherited the family business from his dad & grandfather. He is a total weirdo who would not be elected assistant dog catcher in any democracy.
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) June 12, 2018
“Here’s what I would tell President Trump: I stand with you … but anything you negotiate with North Korea will have to come to the Congress for our approval…Details matter….But I’m hopeful. I think he has convinced Kim Jong Un that he’s better off giving up his nuclear weapons than he is keeping them.”
Sen. Jack Reed, the moderate pro-defense Democrat from Rhode Island who’s ranking member of the Senate Amed Services Committee:
“It’s too early to judge the Trump-Kim summit a success or failure. President Trump took a risk in meeting with Kim Jong Un. The summit conferred legitimacy on Kim Jong Un and it is not clear the United States received sufficient assurances in exchange for giving North Korea’s dictator the brightest of spotlights on the global stage.
“Clearly, this engagement marks a departure from the overheated and bellicose rhetoric we previously heard. But we didn’t hear a lot of new nuclear pledges or commitments beyond President Trump’s offhanded remark that he will host Kim Jong Un for a White House visit. In addition, President Trump agreed to forgo joint exercises with the South Koreans, which has been a bulwark of our defense policy for decades, without significant concessions like a concrete timeline for denuclearization from the other side.
“Given the lack of details we have right now, a careful review of any security assurances or agreement to denuclearize are needed to make sure they align with the best interests of the American people and our long-term security. We must also not lose sight of the horrendous human rights record and atrocities using other weapons of mass destruction committed by the North Korean regime.
“Any agreement must ensure that North Korea is verifiably living up to its obligations. However, it is worth noting that the complete, verifiable, irreversible disarmament of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal would require cooperation and involvement from the international community. And President Trump’s tendency to alienate our loyal allies and undermine the strength of democratic partnerships does not bode well for achieving that goal. Going forward, we must ensure that our alliances with South Korea and Japan do not suffer during this process and that we listen to our allies.
“I remain concerned that President Trump doesn’t have a North Korea strategy. His admission that he wasn’t prepping much for this meeting indicates that this summit was more about the optics than substantive, sustainable progress. This is very early in the process. Only time will tell if optimistic words and a historic photo-op will be matched with concrete actions and historic change.”
Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., a liberal Democrat and member of the Intelligence committee:
“With little to show beyond a brief joint statement with few details, President Trump agreed to end military exercises with South Korea. These exercises for years have served as an important signal that the United States supports our allies in the region. It concerns me that the president is making concessions to North Korea with nothing to show in return. Over the coming months, Secretary Pompeo has been tasked with negotiating a nuclear agreement with North Korea. As the co-chair of the Senate’s National Security Working Group, I intend to closely monitor the administration’s negotiations to ensure that North Korea is required to completely and verifiably denuclearize.”
Colin Clark contributed to this story.