US to suspend military exercises with South Korea, Trump says
The US has agreed to suspend military exercises with South Korea in return for a commitment to denuclearisation from North Korea, Donald Trump has announced, after a meeting with Kim Jong-un in Singapore.
Trump said the war games were expensive and “very provocative”. Stopping them is a major concession, something the US has previously rejected as non-negotiable on the grounds that the exercises are a key element of its military alliance with Seoul, and maintaining a deterrent against North Korea.
In return, the US president said Kim had agreed in a joint statement to reassert “his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula”.
However, that commitment was vaguely worded. A later paragraph in the statement signed by both leaders said only that North Korea “commits to work toward complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula”, without defining what that meant.
Denuclearisation is the longstanding policy of the Pyongyang regime, but the regime interprets this as being an open-ended, gradual process in which other nuclear powers will also disarm.
Both the South Korean government and US forces in the region appear to have been taken by surprise by Trump’s declared suspension of joint military exercises.
US forces in Korea said they had not received updated guidance on military exercises. “In coordination with our ROK [Republic of Korea] partners, we will continue with our current military posture until we receive updated guidance,” a spokesperson told Reuters.
The South Korean presidency issued a statement saying: “At this moment, the meaning and intention of President Trump’s remarks requires more clear understanding.”
The South Korean military appeared similarly taken aback. NBC News quoted a statement as saying: “Regarding President Trump’s comment regarding ending of the combined military drills … we need to find out the exact meaning or intention behind his comments at this point.”
Military officials from both countries, including the US defence secretary, James Mattis, had vigorously opposed curtailing joint military exercises, on the grounds that doing so would undermine the alliance and its deterrent against North Korea.
Kelly Magsamen, a senior Pentagon official dealing with Asian and Pacific security in the Obama administration, said the surprise suspension of military exercises and their disparagement as expensive and provocative “continues Trump’s disturbing pattern of undermining our democratic alliances while praising our adversaries”.
Missing from the joint statement was the definition, promoted up until now by the Trump administration, of complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement (CVID).
Asked at a press conference why those terms were not included, Trump replied: “Because there’s no time. I’m here one day. It wasn’t a big point today because really this … has been taken care of before we got here.”
Trump insisted he believed Kim was determined to disarm, adding that at the end of the summit, the North Korean leader had offered to destroy an engine-testing site that is part of the country’s missile programme.
“He’s de-nuking,” Trump told ABC News. “I mean, he’s de-nuking the whole place. It’s going to start very quickly. I think he’s going to start now.”
Trump said he accepted that dismantling North Korea’s nuclear arsenal would take a long time, but it would be carried out “as fast as it can be done scientifically, as fast it can it be done mechanically”.
The language on disarmament in the statement was similar to that of previous agreements, in 1994 and 2005, which ultimately collapsed amid differences over interpretation and arguments about verification.
Asked how he could ensure Kim’s undertakings would be any more solid, the president replied: “Can you ensure anything? You can’t ensure anything.”
But he added: “All I can say is they want to make a deal. That’s what I do. My whole life has been deals. I have done great at it … I know when somebody wants to deal and I know when somebody doesn’t.”
Trump said the summit on Tuesday would be followed next week by more negotiations between US and North Korean officials to work out the details of the agreement.
Before his press conference, reporters were shown a video that Trump said he had played to Kim and his aides towards the end of their talks. It was made by Destiny Productions and was presented in Korean and English in the style of an action movie trailer.
It sought to illustrate alternative futures for North Korea: one a bright, colourful world of scientific progress and happiness, the other a monochrome world full of weaponry accompanied by ominous music. Only one person could choose between these two destinies, the film’s narrator said.
The joint statement, signed after five hours of talks, laid out a basic bargain. “President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea], and Chairman Kim Jong-unreaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula,” it read.
However, while Washington is pushing for complete disarmament as quickly as possible, Pyongyang wants an open-ended process of negotiation in which it is treated as an equal.
Beatrice Fihn, the executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (Ican), tweeted: “We support diplomacy and peaceful solutions. But there is no agreement on nuclear disarmament and this all looked more like a big welcome party to the nuclear-armed club.”
Kim also undertook to cooperate with the US in the recovery of the remains of American soldiers killed in the Korean war – a longstanding US request that has so far produced only limited assistance.
Trump was repeatedly asked after the summit about North Korea’s appalling human rights record. He said he had raised the issue with Kim, but defended the North Korean leader.
“Well, he is very talented. Anybody that takes over a situation like he did at 26 years of age and is able to run it and run it tough,” the president said. “I believe it is a rough situation over there. We will be doing something on it. It’s rough. It’s rough in a lot of places, by the way.”
During the leaders’ public exchanges, a few months after the pair had swapped insults and threatened imminent war, they went out of their way to be gracious. Trump even declared it an “honour” to be sitting next to Kim.
At the start of the first meeting between a sitting US president and a North Korean leader, the pair walked towards each other and shook hands, then turned unsmiling towards the cameras. Trump appeared to be speaking to Kim throughout the 12 seconds of their handshake. Kim could be heard replying in English, “I’m very happy to meet you in Singapore”, as the US president patted his arm.