Controversy continued to escalate Wednesday over US President Donald Trump’s remark on halting joint military drills with South Korea, fueling concern about his security commitment to long-standing allies in the region.
It is still unclear what Trump meant and intended by stopping “war games” -- whether the announcement aims to suspend semiannual large-scale exercises or whether it is just another gambit to put pressure on South Korea to pay more for stationing US troops.
Whatever purpose he may have, the president’s unexpected announcement -- which appeared to come without consultation with South Korea -- raised concerns over Trump’s “convoluted view” of his understanding of the alliance and security dynamics, experts said.
“From Trump’s perspective, building and maintaining alliances is all about how much it will cost,” said Shin Beom-chul, a senior fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy. “Unfortunately, that is not what an alliance is all about.”
During his post-summit press conference in Singapore, Trump said he would stop the “very provocative” and expensive war games with South Korea to facilitate denuclearization negotiations with North Korea.
The position was reiterated during Trump’s interview with Fox News after his meeting with Kim Jong-un. Trump said the US would not hold war games with South Korea while North Korea engages in denuclearization talks “in good faith.”
North Korea echoed Trump’s remark. Its state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun said Wednesday that Trump “expressed his intention to halt US-South Korea joint military exercise” -- a major concession won from Trump but not included in the summit agreement.
“It sounds like conditional suspension,” said Shin. “As long as the negotiation is underway, the US would hold off on the exercises. Of course, there needs to be progress on denuclearization from North Korea.”
US President Donald Trump. (Yonhap)
But confusion grows over what Trump was referring to by stopping “war games” -- a term he repeatedly used during post-summit interviews. His description of the drills as “provocative,” gave the impression that he was distancing himself from the US and South Korea’s stance that they are “defensive in nature.”
The White House said later Tuesday that the US military would continue to train with its South Korean counterparts and conduct military drills, but not large-scale, joint exercises, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Faced with controversy, Vice President Mike Pence told lawmakers that while the US is ending semiannual “war games” -- or joint exercises -- with South Korea, regular readiness training will continue.
“(Vice President) was very clear: regular readiness training and training exchanges will continue,” Republican Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado said in a Twitter post, after meeting with Pence in a closed-door session.
While South Korean and US defense officials try to figure out what Trump’s announcement means for the troops stationed in South Korea, Pentagon indicated that Trump had consulted with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on the idea.
The US military in South Korea said Tuesday it had received no “updated guidance” on whether to hold joint exercises, including the Ulchi Freedom Guardian scheduled for August. Last year’s drill involved some 17,500 US and 50,000 South Korean troops.
Caught by surprise by Trump’s remark, South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense said they need more time to figure out the exact meaning and intent of Trump’s remark.
“Suspension of the combined exercise needs consultation between the US and South Korea. We need to wait and see what the US intends to do,” a defense official said under the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
By Yeo Jun-suk (email@example.com