WASHINGTON >> Adm. Harry Harris — the top U.S. military commander in the Pacific and President Donald Trump’s pick for ambassador to Australia — said Thursday he thought North Korean leader Kim Jong Un would “be a happy man” if the U.S. withdrew its troops from South Korea.
Earlier this week, Trump hinted the administration might roll back military support for its longtime ally South Korea, a threat that came as the two sides seek to overhaul their trade deal while also disarming North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
“We have a very big trade deficit with them, and we protect them,” Trump said Wednesday. “We lose money on trade, and we lose money on the military. We have right now 32,000 soldiers on the border between North and South Korea. Let’s see what happens.”
In a text message Friday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s office said there was “no need to comment on what a foreign state leader says every time. We don’t have anything to say regarding this.”
But Harris, appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, said, “I believe he (Kim) would do a victory dance” if the U.S. withdrew its troops from South Korea.
Harris, commander of the Honolulu-based U.S. Pacific Command, also told the committee that China’s removal of presidential term limits could see leader Xi Jinping stay in power for decades. He noted that the move is a harbinger of the authoritarian nation’s direction and the strategic threat it poses to America.
Harris, who is Trump’s nominee to become ambassador to Australia, said it was possible that Xi could still be president when China marks the centennial of communist party rule in 2049.
“China has taken advantage of our openness,” Harris told the committee. “Our hope in the past has been that if we bring China into organizations like the World Trade Organization and include China in our military exercises and the like, and that somehow China will become like us.”
“The reality is that’s simply not true. China has taken advantage of our openness … to continue the path that they’ve always been on and we’re seeing that play out now in 2018. Certainly over the next 20 years or so that will be a concern,” Harris said.
His comments of Xi’s political future were notably tougher than the White House, which said this week that the removal of term presidential limits is China’s business. Trump has even quipped, “Maybe we’ll give that a shot someday.”
Harris said China seeks regional hegemony and wants to push America out. He said China’s development of hypersonic glide weapons and stealth fighter jets pose a significant threat to the United States. He also expressed concern about China’s militarization of islands it has built in the disputed South China Sea, and its acquisition of icebreaker ships although it has no Arctic border.
The Pacific commander did credit China, which is North Korea’s main trading partner, for its implementation of U.N. sanctions against the pariah nation. He said the pressure campaign was a “big part” in Kim seeking a summit with Trump.
Nevertheless, Harris said if the U.S. was to get bogged down in a conflict with North Korea, China could take strategic advantage of the situation.
Bloomberg News and the Associated Press contributed to this report.