US and South Korean officials confirmed Tuesday the suspension of scheduled joint military drills, making good on a pledge by President Donald Trump during his summit with North Korea’s leader. Seoul, which has tens of thousands of US troops on its soil to help protect it from its hostile northern neighbour, said the suspension would affect the large-scale Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercises slated for August. “South Korea and the US plan to continue discussions for further measures,” the South’s defence ministry said in a statement, adding that “no decisions have been reached for other ensuing drills.”
Some 17,500 US military personnel were due to take part in the Freedom Guardian drills. “We are still coordinating additional actions. No decisions on subsequent war games have been made,” Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said in confirming the suspension. “There is no impact on Pacific exercises outside of the Korean Peninsula.” White said US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton would meet later this week at the Pentagon to discuss the issue. Last week, Trump made the surprise announcement that the US would halt “war games” with its South Korean security ally without making clear when the freeze would begin.
The US leader raised eyebrows by describing the exercises as “provocative” a term used by the North. US and South Korean forces have been training together for years, and routinely rehearse everything from beach landings to an invasion from the North, or even “decapitation” strikes targeting the North Korean regime. Pyongyang typically reacts furiously. Following drills last year, the North fired ballistic missiles over Japan, triggering global alarm. Trump’s decision raised concern in Japan, which hosts tens of thousands of US troops and has eyed the diplomatic outreach to Pyongyang with deep suspicion.
But officials were sanguine on the announcement Tuesday, with Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera saying Trump’s move would not affect US-Japan exercises. “In talks with Secretary Mattis, we confirmed that we will implement drills between Japan and the US,” he told reporters. Foreign Minister Taro Kono added that Tokyo understood the drills were being halted as a way to press Pyongyang to negotiate in good faith. “I understand that if North Korea stops negotiating with good will, the joint drills will resume,” he said. Choi Hyun-soo, a South Korea defence ministry spokeswoman, added: “We are expecting a corresponding measure from North Korea in response to the suspension of the joint drills.”
At their landmark Singapore summit, Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un signed a joint statement in which Pyongyang committed to “work toward complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.” But critics have pointed to the vague wording of the non-binding document and raised fears that the summit could weaken the international coalition against the North’s nuclear programme. Pompeo, who has stressed that sanctions will remain in place until North Korea’s complete denuclearisation, said he plans to meet Kim for follow-up talks.
South Korea said sanctions against the North could be eased once it takes “substantive steps towards denuclearisation,” seemingly setting the bar lower than Washington for such a move. But Pompeo’s office said both allies remain “committed to the goal of complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation.”