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What a 2nd Trump-Kim summit could mean for the push to denuclearize North Korea

President Trump plans to hold a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un toward the end of February, the White House announced after Trump met with North Korea’s chief negotiator. In his first interview since retiring, Gen. Vincent Brooks, former U.S. commander in South Korea, talks to Nick Schifrin about the summit, delayed U.S.-South Korea exercises and how close the U.S. came to war.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    There was new movement today in the Trump administration's planned push for a nuclear-free North Korea.

    The White House said that new talks between the president and Kim Jong-un will take place toward the end of next month.

    As Nick Schifrin reports, this comes after negotiations stalled following the last summit.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today's announcement came after North Korean chief negotiator Kim Yong-chol met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Steve Biegun.

    And then they went to the White House to meet President Trump.

    That's where Press Secretary Sarah Sanders spoke about the U.S. policy of combined maximum pressure and diplomacy.

  • Sarah Huckabee Sanders:

    The United States is going to continue to keep pressure and sanctions on North Korea until we see fully and verified denuclearization. We have had very good steps in good faith from the North Koreans in releasing the hostages and other moves.

    And so we're going to continue those conversations. And the president looks forward to his next meeting.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That next meeting will occur, possibly in Vietnam, at the end of February, about eight months after President Trump and Kim Jong-un agreed in Singapore to establish a new relationship and build a lasting peace.

    Kim committed to work toward complete denuclearization. President Trump committed to providing the North security guarantees. Since then, the two sides have made no new agreements to carry out that broad framework. But they are far from the 2017 drumbeats of war, when President Trump promised fire and fury, and North Korea promised to envelop U.S. territory Guam.

    Throughout that time, the commander of U.S. and allied forces in South Korea was Vincent Brooks.

    General Brooks joins me now. He retired on January 1, and this is his first interview since retirement.

    General Brooks, it is a pleasure to welcome you to the "NewsHour."

  • Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks:

    Thank you, Nick. It's good to be with you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Let's just talk about the news of the day, first of all.

    Do you believe it's a good idea for there to be a second summit?

  • Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks:

    I do.

    I think that the dialogue part of pressure and dialogue is a critical aspect of this. Without conversation, we go right back where we were in 2016 and '17, with the great potential of miscalculation one another's actions.

    So, I think it's good. It's important to recognize that any decision made in North Korea about the way forward is going to be made by Kim Jong-un himself. And so the fact that he sent his trusted representative, Kim Yong-chol, to Washington to carry the message that the door is still open, I believe, is a good thing.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So let's talk about Kim Jong-un himself.

    There's a debate in Washington, as you know, about his intentions. Do you believe he's serious about getting rid of his nuclear weapons?

  • Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks:

    I do. I think that the dance is going to be very important here, though, as we think about how we go from where we were to where we all want to be.

    First, we ought to take him at his word. And that's not an easy thing to accept, especially given the track record of North Korea. But this is a new leader in North Korea. And this is the first episode that he's gone through with national leaders. And, indeed, there's evidence that he's serious about committing to what he said.

    For example, we have now gone 415 days without a strategic provocation, test or demonstration. I think that's a signal by itself that Kim Jong-un has moved in a different direction.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But, as you know, there are a lot of skeptics of this approach, perhaps that Kim Jong-un is somehow buying time.

    You called him a new leader. Does he want a new relationship fundamentally with the United States?

  • Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks:

    I do believe that Kim Jong-un wants a different relationship. But that's really at the heart of the pace of the interaction that I believe was perhaps restarted today with this meeting in Washington.

    And it is, can trust be built sufficiently to overcome so many decades of distrust and expectation of failure? That's the challenge that is ahead right now.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So let's talk about some of the mechanics of how to rebuild that trust and some of the topics that will be discussed at this second summit.

    What do you think Kim Jong-un's priorities are? Is it sanctions relief first, or perhaps a political declaration to end the war, which the U.S. is debating right now?

  • Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks:

    I think the broader aim is to have a completely new set of relationships in Northeast Asia.

    And with that, then there will be subordinate actions, like the specific decisions you made reference to, that will get us toward that. What the sequence is going to be, that's what I think we have — the significant work to be done ahead.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    I want to go back to September 2017.

    The North Koreans had set off a hydrogen bomb. They had launched a intercontinental ballistic missile that could hit the United States. And then we heard from Secretary of Defense James Mattis.

  • James Mattis:

    Any threat to the United States or its territories, including Guam, or our allies will be met with a massive military response. We're not looking to the total annihilation of a country, namely, North Korea, but, as I said, we have many options to do so.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    How close were the United States and North Korea to war?

  • Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks:

    I would say we were close.

    Now, but this is the nature of being close to war. And I think it's important to dig into this one just a little bit, Nick, and that is, the capability to go to war was clearly there. The military preparations were also there. We were posturing in a number of different ways, logistically, policy-wise.

    The concentration of all of the U.S. military services and the combatant commands was focused on this problem, in the event that we ended up where we didn't want to be. The greater danger though, Nick, in all this was the potential for miscalculation. And that is that one side would perceive the actions of another or the other in such a way that they presume that there was something hostile and different.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    What might have been the spark that lit the U.S. decision, so to speak, to go to war?

  • Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks:

    The spark could have been any action without explanation or dialogue that was misconstrued.

    It could have been something as small as ordering all of the noncombatants, those civilians who are in South Korea, either part of families of government, government workers who were not mission-essential, or even those who are expatriates of some sort, ordering their departure from the Republic of Korea.

    That could have been perceived…

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You mean a U.S….

  • Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks:

    Yes, U.S.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You mean a U.S. decision that would have led to a North Korean decision?

  • Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks:

    It could have triggered a North Korean reaction, looking for that signal as a very significant move by the United States that would be preparatory to military action.

    So that didn't happen, thankfully.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    How close was it to happening?

  • Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks:

    And, as a result, we didn't see the spark.

    Well, it was clearly being discussed in Washington and in other capitals. And, at that time, of course, we didn't have an ambassador in Seoul. And I spent quite a bit of my own time having discussions with ambassadors, foreign ministers, defense ministers of various countries around — around the world who have citizens in the Republic of Korea, wondering whether this was going to happen or not.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Among the scenarios you were considering, did any of them include the U.S. attacking first?

  • Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks:

    The entire array was planned.

    And we made sure we were prepared for whatever decision the two presidents that I was serving made together. And that could include a unilateral decision made by either one of the two presidents. And I think it's very important to understand that I was a commander serving two presidents during that entire time.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Meaning the South Korean president under your joint forces command and the U.S. president.

  • Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks:

    Exactly, the South Korean president and the president of the United States, absolutely.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The U.S. suspended the major U.S.-South Korean military exercises, Ulchi-Freedom Guardian, as well as a number of smaller exercises.

    In your opinion, has that degraded readiness?

  • Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks:

    Well, in real terms, there's no substitute for the most credible, realistic scenario that you can train less the conditions of actual combat.

    So any commander would say yes. The answer is yes. The readiness does get degraded. But let's put that in context. So there has to be room for diplomatic maneuvering, diplomatic action to occur. And if creating leverage or traction comes from these adjustments to the exercises, then that's a risk that has to be consciously taken.

    And it was. And commanders then have a responsibility of finding other ways to maintain readiness, less than the optimum method. And that's exactly what's going on. We have got very creative commanders and leaders out there who are going to find ways to keep the edge of this sword sharp, while, at the same time, having been told to put it in the sheath for a period of time, never forgetting how to use it.

    That's the way I describe it. And that's what happened here. But it does create a new challenge for how you maintain that readiness and make sure that the credible threat is still intact.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    We will leave it there.

    General Vincent Brooks, thank you very much.

  • Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks:

    Take care, Nick. Thank you.

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