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Former National Intelligence Director Discusses Military Exercises With South Korea

June 15, 2018

Interview by Mary Louise Kelly

And we are awaiting a formal announcement from the Pentagon that joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises have been called off. President Trump announced his decision to do that at the Singapore summit this week, a decision he defended this way.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: But we’ll be saving a tremendous amount of money. Plus I think it’s very provocative.

KELLY: So are these exercises provocative? And how much money would it save to scrap them? And what is the point of them in the first place? Well, we’re going to put those questions to our next guest, who once commanded U.S. forces in the Pacific. Admiral Dennis Blair also served as director of national intelligence under President Obama, and he’s in our studio now. Admiral Blair, good to see you.

DENNIS BLAIR: Nice to be with you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Before we get to the policy issues at stake here, I want to start with the semantics. President Trump has called these war games. Other people are insisting they’re defensive military exercises. Does it matter what we call them?


KELLY: Either one…


KELLY: …Works for you? They don’t have shades of meaning? War game sounds more aggressive than defensive exercises.

BLAIR: Well, depends which end you’re on in the war (laughter) whether it’s defensive. And all of our exercises in Korea are based on a scenario in which North Korea attacks, and we are – we, along with Republic of Korea forces, are defending.

KELLY: The next scheduled exercises, or wargames, I understand are for August and would involve, obviously, troops, aircraft, artillery – I mean, paint, for those of us who are not military, a picture of what this actually looks like. What would be happening in August that the president has just called a halt to?

BLAIR: Well, the exercises in August are actually command post exercises, which are done on computers. You’re exercising commanders and staffs to be able to move forces. You’re not actually moving ships, planes, tanks, forces. That field training exercise, in which you actually get tactical units in the field, takes place in the spring in an exercise called Foal Eagle, which has already occurred this year.

KELLY: So to the president’s other point, that stopping these exercises will save, quote, “a tremendous amount of money,” will it? How much did it cost?

BLAIR: He’s simply misinformed. The fact is that the troops that are stationed in Korea are the least expensive troops that the United States deploys, along with those in Japan, because Japan and Korea contribute. And they contribute to the cost of stationing, to paying for oil, to things that the United States has to pay completely for forces that are in Fort Lewis, Wash., or in Camp Pendleton. Nonetheless, yes, it does cost some money.

But on this point of – we all know what the president is trying to say. Let’s not do military maneuvers that sort of upset the balance while we’re trying to talk. Certainly, flying bombers from Guam to North Korea as part of an exercise does send a particular signal. It does give you some training value. But you can get the same training value without those same profile. And those sort of adjustments – I think – are perfectly fine. But…

KELLY: You’re describing maybe a middle ground, where exercises of some form might continue, but in a way that would be less provocative, to use the president’s term, if you were watching all this from Pyongyang.

BLAIR: Yeah, exactly. And yet, Pyongyang would know that the forces are still ready, that it’s not worth their while to start anything. And if they do start a war, they would lose.

KELLY: May I ask you to take off your Navy hat for a moment and put on your former DNI, director of national intelligence, hat? President Trump said after the summit this week – he tweeted out, quote, “There is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.” What do you make of that?

BLAIR: I think he had a long trip, and I think he is proud of having the first meeting with a North Korean leader, as, in some sense, he should be. But I think he’s exaggerating. All of the capabilities that were there six months ago are still there. Now, again, the main thing that’s keeping that under control is – are not declarations and so on. It’s the American deterrent, which is immeasurably greater than the North Korean threat.

KELLY: We pushed Mike Morell, former acting director of the CIA, on some of these questions this week. He said he is open to the idea that maybe North Korea might be actually persuaded to give up its nuclear weapons at some point down the road. Where do you sit on this?

BLAIR: I respect Mike in many ways, but I disagree with him on that.

KELLY: You think North Korea remains committed to keeping its weapons?

BLAIR: Yeah, yeah. I think what we’re seeing now is a younger guy who has a certain superficial acquaintance, having studied in Switzerland and so on, with the toys of the West. And he’s figured out some fairly clever ways that he can use those for his purposes. But inside I still think that he’s a brutal, repressive leader who doesn’t trust anybody and is simply trying to maintain his hold on power.

KELLY: If you believe that, what would your advice be to the president? If you were back in your old job and trying to counsel him, what’s the next step?

BLAIR: I would say the whole idea of concessions ahead of time is nuts. The (laughter) North Koreans don’t understand those. They don’t do it themselves. They think people who do it are weak. I think you sort of start with move for move and test whether this is true or not. And if it is true, it’ll work out.

KELLY: Distrust and verify sounds like would be your advice.

BLAIR: Yeah, exactly. Show me. (Laughter) Prove it. Don’t talk it. Prove it.

KELLY: Admiral Blair, thank you.

BLAIR: OK. Nice to talk with you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: That’s retired Navy Admiral Dennis Blair, former director of national intelligence, also former commander in chief at U.S. Pacific Command.