South Korea’s presidential office Wednesday hinted at the possibility of suspending the country‘s joint military drills with the United States, raising the prospect of halting the upcoming Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise scheduled for August.
Cheong Wa Dae said Wednesday while it needs more time to figure out the meaning and intention of Trump’s remark, the government can consider “various options” to build trust with North Korea to foster the denuclearization process.
“When there is serious talks going on between North Korea and the US for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and improving relations, I think we need to consider various measures to facilitate such efforts,” said Kim Eui-kyeom, Blue House spokesperson.
The remark came as US President Donald Trump’s remark on halting “provocative and expensive” war games it conducts with South Korea fueled concerns about the US security commitment to long-standing allies in the region.
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, which involved some 17,500 US and 50,000 South Korean troops during the last year’s exercise.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Seoul Wednesday to meet with Moon and Gen. Vincent Brooks, commander of US Forces Korea, which carries out joint military drills with South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Cheong Wa Dae said President Moon will discuss the issue during the National Security Council meeting on Thursday, including the question over what Trump meant by referring to the suspension of war games.
“We think there is uncertainty over whether Trump’s reference to “war games” meant the joint military exercises. Including the definition of term, we will talk about those issues during the NSC meeting,” said a Cheong Wa Dae official told reporters under the condition of customary anonymity.
The issue is likely to be discussed during the military talks with North Korea scheduled for Thursday in the truce village of Panmunjeom. The general-level talk is aimed at addressing how to fulfill the Panmunjeom Declaration, in which the two Koreas agreed to stop hostile acts against each other.
South Korea is struggling to grapple with what Trump meant and intended by stopping “war games” -- whether he aims to suspend semi-annual large-scale exercises or deployment of so-called strategic assets, such as the bombers flown from Guam.
Some speculated that Trump’s remark may be a gambit to put pressure on South Korea to pay more for the stationing of US troops in South Korea and increase the US leverage in bilateral negotiations over defense cost-sharing.
Whatever purpose he may have had in mind, the president’s unexpected announcement -- which appeared to have come without consultation with South Korea -- raised concerns over Trump’s view of the alliance and security dynamics, experts said.
“I won’t be surprised if Trump changes his position again overnight,” said Cha Du-hyeogn, a visiting research fellow at Asan Institute for Policy Studies. “I doubt Trump’s idea can even be approved by the US Congress.”
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 his 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 a conditional suspension,” said Shin Beom-chul, a senior fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy. “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.”
But confusion grows over what Trump meant by stopping “war games,” – whether it is only limited to large-scale, joint exercise -- such as Ulchi Freedom Guardian -- or other small-scale, regular exercises between the US and South Korea forces.
The confusion was intensified in Washington as an influential Republican lawmaker claimed that Vice President Mike Pence told the lawmakers that while the US is ending semiannual joint exercise, regular readiness training will continue. Pence’s office reportedly disputed the claim.
“I think what the vice president said today -- and we’ll continue to clarify what the president had talked about -- exercises will continue with South Korea,” Sen. Cory Gardner said during a news conference with other GOP leaders, according to the Washington Post.
By Yeo Jun-suk (email@example.com