President Donald Trump said the United States shouldn’t be spending large amounts of money on joint military exercises with South Korea, more than two months after he agreed to suspend some of the war games during nuclear talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
In tweets on Wednesday night, Trump said that “there is no reason at this time to be spending large amounts of money on joint U.S.-South Korea war games.”
Trump, referring to himself, added: “Besides, the President can instantly start the joint exercises again with South Korea and Japan, if he so chooses. If he does, they will be far bigger than ever before.”
The president’s comments caused confusion about the future of the war games a day after Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, during a Pentagon press conference, said the U.S. military “suspended several of the largest exercises, but we did not suspend the rest” and added “there are ongoing exercises all the time on the peninsula.”
Mattis added: “So the exercises continue. What it means in practical terms is that we’re making no changes to the exercise program at this time.”
The joint military exercises between Washington and Seoul have long been a sore point for North Korea’s leadership, which regularly calls them provocative and threatening and at times mounts a response. The Trump administration agreed to suspend some of the exercises after the Singapore summit as U.S. diplomats advanced nuclear disarmament talks with North Korea.
On Wednesday, before Trump’s tweets, Mattis issued a follow-up statement, saying only three specific military exercises had been suspended to “provide space” for U.S. diplomats to negotiate.
Otherwise, he said, “Our military posture has not changed since the conclusion of the Singapore summit and no decisions have been made about suspending any future exercises.”
Mattis added that the alliance between the United States and South Korea remained “ironclad.”
It wasn’t immediately clear if Trump, in his series of tweets, was referring to restarting all exercises with South Korea, suggesting perhaps he planned to put them all on ice, or if he was referencing only those the Pentagon had already suspended.
It also wasn’t clear what he meant by restarting military exercises with Japan, when the Pentagon hasn’t made any announcements about suspending U.S.-Japanese war games. Mattis, in a trip to Japan earlier this summer, pledged to continue joint military exercises with Tokyo.
Pentagon officials said there wasn’t a contradiction between Trump’s tweets and the comments by Mattis. The three exercises with South Korea that the U.S. military suspended have yet to take place, they said, so theoretically Trump could be talking about restarting them. Trump’s comments about the cost of the exercises, however, clearly referred to all such war games with South Korea.
U.S. Army Col. Rob Manning, a spokesman for the Pentagon, said routine planning continued for the traditional slate of U.S.-South Korea exercises, apart from the three that were suspended.
Among those that were suspended were Freedom Guardian, an annual command and control exercise that began in 1976 and would have started in the coming weeks.
North Korea has suspended its missile and nuclear tests and repatriated some remains of missing American service members from the Korean War. But so far, follow-on negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang regarding the details of a nuclear disarmament deal have stalled.
Last week, the Trump administration canceled what would have been Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s fourth trip to Pyongyang for talks.
Trump said at the time that he had instructed Pompeo not to go because there hadn’t been “sufficient progress with respect to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
North Korea has demanded that the United States declare a formal end to the Korean War, something Washington is open to doing, but American diplomats want Kim’s government to offer some concessions on denuclearization before taking that step.
When he canceled Pompeo’s trip, Trump said the secretary of state was looking forward to going to North Korea in the near future, most likely after the United States and China resolved trade issues.
The president returned to that explanation for the stalled talks in his tweets Wednesday night. He appeared to suggest that China was pressuring North Korea not to do disarmament deal with the United States because of the trade dispute with Washington. He also said China was continuing to provide North Korea with considerable aid, money, fuel, fertilizer and other commodities. The president described those actions as “not helpful!”
“Nonetheless, the President believes that his relationship with Kim Jong Un is a very good and warm one,” Trump wrote, referring to himself. He predicted that he would resolve the trade disputes with China and other difference in time with “China’s great President Xi Jingping.”
Meanwhile, there are indications that Pyongyang is continuing to advance toward a capability that would allow Kim to strike the continental United States with a nuclear weapon. U.S. officials have said North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs are still progressing clandestinely, even though the nation announced it was dismantling certain facilities.
Military exercises between the United States and South Korea have long been a point of contention for North Korea. In response to a military exercise in late 2010, North Korea shelled a South Korean island resulting in one of the most tense incidents on the peninsula since the 1953 armistice.
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · Paul Sonne