Retired U.S. General Jack Keane, a former Army vice chief of staff with close ties to the Trump administration, spoke with VOA's Korean service this week. Keane, 75, began his military career as a cadet in Fordham University's ROTC program. He retired from active duty in 2003 following a four-decade career that included command of the 101st Airborne Division. Now a Fox News analyst, Keane spoke with Youngnam Kim about the June 12 Singapore summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump. His answers have been edited for clarity and length.
VOA Korean service: What is President Donald Trump's goal for the summit, and is it a realistic goal?
Jack Keane: I totally agree with President Trump's goal, which is denuclearization. And by that definition, the United States is going to insist it be complete, involving all of nuclear weapons, the fuel sites, the storage sites and the research sites, and all of their ballistic missiles. We'll have to be able to verify that with the U.S. inspectors. We're not going to turn this over to the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] because they have failed us in the past, so [we'll] welcome other countries' independent inspectors. But we'll have to verify that process indeed is complete. That's the U.S. objective for the summit. I don't believe that is the objective for the first meeting. But in terms of what the objectives of the summit are, that's where the U.S. is headed.
Q: What could be a possible timeline for denuclearization that would satisfy the U.S.?
A: The North Koreans will want to phase this out over many years and go beyond President Trump's first term of office, which is going to end in 2020, and sort of wait him out. That will be a mistake on the part of the Trump administration. I don't believe they will. I think [the Trump administration is] going to insist on trying to get this done at the latest by 2020 and insist on a process that moves more quickly. It certainly will be phased, but they're not going to endorse a program that will go on for many years. That's been the ploy of the North Koreans in the past. They set far-term objectives, a promise to do something. And they've been consistent … [on] reneg[ing] [on] their promise after concessions have been made to them. The Trump administration is very clear-eyed about this. I don't see them giving into that kind of manipulation in a way that previous administrations have.
Q: Is President Trump following the same path of the previous administration?
A: No, I don't believe so. Trump didn't need to have this summit. Kim Jong Un insisted on it. … Kim Jong Un started to talk about denuclearization not being his goal after he returned from his secret meeting with [China's] President Xi [Jinping], and his whole attitude changed. Once the Trump administration saw the substance of it, saw the tone of his remarks were off base, [they canceled the summit]. But I don't think they canceled the summit meeting based on the tone. They canceled it based on the substance of it because it appeared that Kim Jong Un's policy had changed from his commitment to denuclearization, and he was no longer committed after he spoke with President Xi. I think that's a clear evidence that this is not a previous administration. They're not following that path. I'm convinced President Trump will walk out of the summit and terminate it early if Kim Jong Un puts something on the table that is totally unacceptable to the United States. Or if the United States believes that Kim Jong Un really is not going to give up his nuclear weapons, that this is a ploy, then they'll walk away. That's the difference between this administration and the previous one.
Q: What would happen if the summit fails?
A: If the summit fails, and that's a possibility, I don't think the first meeting will fail. But if it does, President Trump will continue what [the administration was] doing with "maximum pressure." I think maximum pressure will increase economic sanctions. We have a number of sanctions … that we were getting ready to impose when Kim Jong Un seemed to have changed his policy and wanted to have a meeting with the South Korean president and also with President Trump. Those sanctions, we have not imposed, but we will. And those involve some sanctions with China. We will have to go back to very tough enforcement. And that's really the key. … What our State Department has done a very good job of is getting countries to enforce it. Make a decision — either you're going to go along with sanctions against North Korea, or we're going to stop trading with you. Make the choice. And that's been done behind the scenes. That's why these economic sanctions have been the toughest ever imposed on North Korea, largely because of the degree of the enforcement.
If the situation deteriorated, you would likely to see the United States stop assigning military families to South Korea and make that an unaccompanied military tour. You would also see the United States bring in more capacity into the theater to build up ammunition stock, to increase the number of air power — not necessarily in South Korea but into the region — building up military pressure to make certain the regime understands that President Trump is serious about the military option. The simplest expression of what the United States is saying to Kim Jong Un is that "you give us nuclear weapons in return for a guarantee of security and an opportunity to increase your country's economic prosperity. If you don't give us your weapons voluntarily, then we're going to take them." And that's the choice that Kim Jong Un really has.
Q: What is your response to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's comment saying the realistic goal is to limit North Korea's capability to attack the U.S.?
A: That would not be the policy of the United States. I don't know why he would be saying something like that. If [he said that], it's got to be some mistake, because I have spoken to Secretary Pompeo myself, and he is absolutely adamant about the total denuclearization of North Korea. And that's President Trump's policy. I don't see leaving North Korea as a nuclear power so they could proliferate nuclear weapons to the Iranians, to radical Islamic terrorists, and leaving ballistic missiles that would be capable of reaching our allies in the region with nuclear weapons or even with conventional ammunitions. That's just not acceptable. That's not the U.S. policy. And I've not heard that statement.
Q: Can we end the Korean War even though the North still has nuclear weapons?
A: Both issues, denuclearization and ending the war, can be worked simultaneously. I think ending the armistice and the Korean War and signing a peace treaty with the four principal nations — North Korea, South Korea, China and the United States — is a good thing. And I think it could be one of the things that's agreed upon in the first summit meeting. The next step, after the Korean War and the armistice [are] ended and the treaty is signed, would be to pull the two armies [of South Korea and North Korea] away from each other on the Demilitarized Zone. That would be a significant step in the right direction. South Korea is very aware of [the] significant conventional threat that the North Korean military represents to the South Korean people. For the armies to pull away from each other, we would need a peace treaty. And that's why it's an important step in the right direction. At the same time, we're removing nuclear weapons from the country. I don't think we have to remove all the nuclear weapons from the country to have a peace treaty. To move toward the peace treaty, to have an agreement that we're going to have one and that the war is over, is a necessary first step to assist with denuclearization but, most importantly, to reduce the conventional threat.
Q: Is U.S. troop withdrawal on the table for negotiation?
A: I don't see the United States pulling its forces out unless all the nuclear weapons are gone and the ballistic missiles are gone. And then, I do think it's a negotiable item. But I don't think it's something that would happen in the near term. And I don't think it's necessarily something that has to happen all at once. But if you remove the conventional threat as the result of a peace treaty, if the country is disarmed in terms of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, then having troops in the region is a good idea. We still have 40,000 U.S. troops in Japan. The justification for those troops in South Korea is considerably less. And I suspect that President Trump will use it as a negotiating tool only if denuclearization were complete and verified. It will only happen after [denuclearization] because you would lose the rationale [for] why they are there to begin with.
The United States has significant leverage because the troops are there and because of their commitment to the South Korean people. But reducing the conventional threat is very important. That would have to be reduced, because after all, that's why [the U.S. troops] are there. They're not there because of the nuclear threat. They're there because of the conventional threat. [North Korean and South Korean troops] would have to be dramatically reduced, pulled off the DMZ, no longer in a warlike configuration. They would go back to their bases from which they're trained, the way forces are in other countries. They're at their military bases and they go out to the field to be trained. They are not deployed, ready to fight, with all the mines on bridges and everything else that we put in place. That would all have to change. That would take time for all of that to happen. I do think it's not something the United States would put on the table right away. But it is something that I could see us using as a negotiating tool once denuclearization is achieved, and there is, in fact, a peace treaty.
Q: Is a military option still on the table?
A: I think the United States is fully committed to helping Kim Jong Un give up his nuclear weapons capabilities. And if [Kim] doesn't do that, then the United States will conduct military operations to take those weapons away from him. That's where we are. This administration is committed to it.
Christy Lee contributed to this report, which originated on the VOA Korean service.