U.S. President Donald Trump made a stunning concession to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Tuesday about halting military exercises, pulling a surprise at a summit that baffled allies, military officials and lawmakers from his own Republican Party.
At a news conference after the historic meeting with Kim in Singapore, Trump announced he would halt what he called “very provocative” and expensive regular military exercises that the United States stages with South Korea.
That was sure to rattle close allies South Korea and Japan. North Korea has long sought an end to the war games.
Retired Adm. Harry Harris, the former head of U.S. Pacific Command and the Trump administration’s chosen ambassador to South Korea, explained the logic behind the military exercises in congressional testimony last year. “We are obliged to defend South Korea by treaty. They have a strong and capable military, as we do. But if we’re going to defend or if we’re going to fight with them on the peninsula then we have to be able to integrate with their military,” Harris told the House Armed Services Committee. “We have to maintain our degree of readiness, not only unilateral readiness, but also our combined and joint readiness with our brothers and sisters in the ROK [Republic of Korea] military.”
Equally surprising as Trump’s military announcement was the fact that he reportedly took this unilateral step without notifying South Korean and Japanese allies, or the Pentagon. The cancellation of the exercises has been a North Korean priority for decades, and in calling them “war games” and “provocative,” Trump adopted the rhetoric of Pyongyang.
Trump and Kim promised in a joint statement to work toward the “denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula, and the United States promised its Cold War foe security guarantees. But they offered few specifics.
The summit, the first between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader, was in stark contrast to a flurry of North Korean nuclear and missile tests and angry exchanges of insults between Trump and Kim last year that fueled worries about war.
Noting past North Korean promises to denuclearize, many analysts cast doubt on how effective Trump had been at obtaining Washington’s pre-summit goal of getting North Korea to undertake complete, verifiable and irreversible steps to scrap a nuclear arsenal that is advanced enough to threaten the United States.
In statements relayed by North Korea’s state-run news agency, Kim called for Pyongyang and Washington to end “irritating and hostile military actions” against each other. But it made no mention of North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons program.
If the United States takes genuine measures to build trust with North Korea, the North will take additional goodwill measures, Kim said, according to a Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) report.
Critics in the United States said Trump had given away too much at a meeting that provided international standing to Kim. The North Korean leader is isolated, his country accused by rights groups of widespread human rights abuses and under U.N. sanctions for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
If implemented, the halting of the joint military exercises would be one of the most controversial moves to come from the summit. The drills help keep U.S. forces at a state of readiness in one of the world’s most tense flashpoints.