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Trump's South Korea Ambassador Nominee Defends Cancellation Of Joint Military Exercises


Now let's hear about a man who is likely to play an important diplomatic role on U.S. policy toward the Korean Peninsula. Admiral Harry Harris most recently led U.S. Pacific Command. The Trump administration has tapped him to become its ambassador to South Korea. Harris had his confirmation hearing today, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: In his previous job, Harry Harris took a hard line on North Korea, so the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez, was eager to hear what Harris thought about President Trump's summit with Kim Jong Un.


ROBERT MENENDEZ: Do you think we no longer need to worry about North Korea's nuclear threat?

HARRY HARRIS: No, Senator. I think we must continue to worry about the nuclear threat.

MENENDEZ: I appreciate that because I know the president said the other day that after Singapore, we can sleep well because we no longer have to worry about North Korea's nuclear threat. But I didn't sleep much better.

KELEMEN: Admiral Harris spent a lot of the hearing trying to reassure lawmakers that the administration is realistic about this latest effort to talk North Korea out of its nuclear weapons program. And he's trying to reassure them that if he's confirmed as ambassador to South Korea, he will try to keep the Trump administration in sync with its ally.


HARRIS: It's critical that the decisions that we make with regard to troop levels, with regard to exercises and with regard to everything else that affects the alliance - that their decisions be taken together with our South Korean ally.

KELEMEN: Born in Japan, Harris grew up in Tennessee and Florida. He graduated from the Naval Academy. And though he spent his career in the military, Harris has dealt with the State Department as the military liaison to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. And he sounded diplomatic when asked about President Trump's decision to call off war games with South Korea. Harris didn't refer to the exercises that way.


HARRIS: We should give major exercises a pause to see if Kim Jong Un in fact is serious about his part of the negotiations. You know, I've spoken in the past about, you know, the need to bring Kim Jong Un to his senses and not to his knees. And I think the president's efforts in Singapore did just that.

KELEMEN: He says he is concerned that China will want to relax sanctions too soon. Harris says he will be an advocate in the administration to maintain pressure and to talk eventually about North Korea's cyber and conventional threats in addition to its nuclear program. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.