World News

Concession Over Military Exercises Blindsides South Korea

Posted June 12, 2018 5:54 p.m. EDT
Updated June 12, 2018 6:01 p.m. EDT

SEOUL, South Korea — For South Koreans who have long felt threatened by nuclear war, seeing President Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader shake hands and sign an agreement on improving ties brought relief, if not closure, to the decades-old standoff.

But the optimism was quickly tempered by a shocker.

Hours after the summit meeting with Kim Jong Un in Singapore was over, Trump said he planned to end annual joint military exercises with South Korea, emphasizing their expense.

Trump suggested that he was ending the “very provocative” war games as an incentive for North Korea to denuclearize, granting the North one of its most avidly sought objectives even before the country has begun dismantling its nuclear weapons.

North Korea has long insisted that it would not relinquish its nuclear weapons program unless the United States removed its “hostile policies.” The North has cited military drills between the United States and South Korea as a prime example of U.S. hostility, calling them rehearsals for invasion. Washington and Seoul have always dismissed such accusations as propaganda.

“We will be stopping the war games, which will save us a tremendous amount of money, unless and until we see the future negotiation is not going along like it should,” Trump told a news conference in Singapore. “Under the circumstances we are negotiating a comprehensive and complete deal. It is inappropriate to have war games.”

“Number one, we save money. A lot,” he said. “Number two, it is really something they very much appreciated.”

Trump’s remarks apparently blindsided South Korea. The office of President Moon Jae-in and the Defense Ministry in Seoul said they were both scrambling to “figure out the exact meaning and intentions in President Trump’s comments.”

Ending the military exercises could help Kim persuade his people, especially hard-line generals, to agree to denuclearize and focus on building the country’s economy, said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior analyst at the Sejong Institute in South Korea. Still, Trump’s announcement stunned many South Koreans.

Ever since the 1950-53 Korean War, the U.S. troops deployed in South Korea and the annual exercises have been the most visual display of the alliance. Previous efforts to halt the exercises often have faced tremendous resistance, especially from conservative South Koreans who regard the alliance as the main defense against the North.

“President Trump said something the United States’ commander-in-chief should not say to its ally,” said Cheon Seong-whun, an analyst at the Asan Institute in Seoul. “It’s a great insult to all South Korean soldiers who have been training for the alliance.

“He sees everything in terms of money but there are values other than money in an alliance,” he added.

Officials in South Korea have been open to the idea of altering the exercises to help persuade North Korea to denuclearize. They delayed them this year to encourage the North to participate in the Winter Olympics in the South in February.

But the South Korean government has always considered the U.S. military presence and joint drills an integral part of its security in the region, regardless of the North’s nuclear intentions.

Many South Koreans and Japanese fear that North Korea and China will turn talks over denuclearizing the North into regional disarmament negotiations aimed at undermining the U.S. military influence in Northeast Asia.

When United States, South Korean and Japanese officials meet in coming days to coordinate their policies, “it should become clear that any suspension of military exercises is not permanent policy but rather a short-term confidence building measure with North Korea,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

The U.S. military in South Korea — also apparently blindsided by Trump’s remarks — said it had received “no updated guidance on execution or cessation of training exercises,” including the annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian joint exercise scheduled for this fall.

But Trump’s remarks fed fears among many South Koreans that his “America-first” diplomacy will leave them fending for themselves, with no sure sign that North Korea is bargaining away its nuclear weapons.

Trump has repeatedly unsettled South Koreans by threatening to withdraw the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, accusing Seoul of not paying enough for their presence. On Tuesday, he again said that he wanted to bring soldiers home but that a troop withdrawal was “not part of the equation” in current negotiations with North Korea.

His announcement on ending joint military exercises indicated intense bargaining that had not been reflected in the broadly worded joint statement Trump and Kim signed.

Although vaguely worded, the joint statement contained a rough road map for ending the North Korean nuclear crisis that Moon’s government in Seoul has been advocating.

In their statement, Kim made a “firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” while Trump promised to provide “security guarantees” for the North.

Both leaders also agreed to establish “new” relations between their countries and build a “lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.” They said they would implement the agreement “expeditiously.” Aides for both will start negotiations as early as next week. Moon called the agreement “a historic event that has helped break down the last remaining Cold War legacy on earth.”

“I would like to pay my respect to President Trump who achieved a feat that no one else has ever delivered,” Moon said.

North Korea and the United States made similar, broadly worded commitments in the past, in nuclear disarmament accords signed in 1994 and in 2005, for example. Those agreements collapsed in later talks on what actions North Korea should take toward denuclearization and how to verify them, as well as what incentives Washington should provide.

The lack of such details in the Trump-Kim statement suggested that despite many rounds of lower-level talks before the summit meeting, wide mistrust persists between the two sides.

“The joint statement is not the end but just the beginning” of what could be a bumpy road toward denuclearizing North Korea, said Kim Dong-yub, an analyst at the Seoul-based Institute for Far Eastern Studies. “Both sides probably realized that they needed to build confidence first rather than making excessive demands.” Officials said the Tuesday statement was more likely to succeed because it had been signed and endorsed personally by two strong-willed heads of state.

But critics said Trump gave away too much too soon to Kim, helping the dictator debut as a major international diplomat and implicitly recognizing North Korea as a de facto nuclear weapons state while failing to commit Kim to a specific timetable for denuclearization.

In North Korea, the video images of Kim with Trump will be a propaganda bonanza for the young North Korean leader, they said.

“The whole summit was a big win for Kim Jong Un,” said Yoo Dong-ryul, director of the Korea Institute for Liberal Democracy in Seoul.