SINGAPORE — The US military will stop “war games” on the Korean Peninsula, US President Donald Trump said Tuesday, as he announced details of his discussions with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Exercises carried out each year by the US and South Korean militaries have been consistently cited by Pyongyang as a US rehearsal for war, and a reason it needs to build a nuclear arsenal.
“Under the circumstances that we’re negotiating a very comprehensive complete deal I think it’s inappropriate to have war games … It is something that (North Korea) very much appreciated,” Trump said a post-summit news conference in Singapore.
The US maintains around 30,000 troops in South Korea, as well as a base for Air Force fighter plane squadrons. Exercises also typically involve planes and ships coming in from elsewhere, mostly notably from the island of Guam, in the Western Pacific.
US Forces Korea said Tuesday it had received no instructions to stop upcoming military drills, according to a report from Stars and Stripes, an unofficial military newspaper.
“In coordination with our [South Korean] partners, we will continue with our current military posture until we receive updated guidance from the Department of Defense … and/or Indo-Pacific Command,” spokeswoman Col. Jennifer Lovett told Stars and Stripes in an email.
The South Korean President’s office said Tuesday it was still trying to figure out what Trump meant in his military comments. “At this moment, we need to figure out president Trump’s accurate meaning and intention,” a South Korean statement said.
Military exercises costly, Trump says
Trump on Tuesday said that the drills cost the US a lot of money.
“The war games are very expensive; we paid for a big majority of them, we fly in bombers from Guam,” Trump said.
“That’s a long time for these big massive planes to be flying to South Korea to practice and then drop bombs all over the place and then go back to Guam. I know a lot about airplanes, it’s very expensive,” he added.
Trump said he hoped to remove US troops from South Korea at some point.
“I want to get our soldiers out. I want to bring our soldiers back home,” Trump said. “But that’s not part of the equation right now. I hope it will be eventually.”
US Defense Secretary James Mattis said Monday that US troop levels in South Korea were not part of negotiations with Pyongyang.
“Right now the US and South Korea are not engaged and we’re the only ones who make up our minds on this,” Mattis said.
North Korea’s main ally China had pushed for the end of the US military exercises on the Korean Peninsula in exchange for North Korea freezing its nuclear weapons program. It was responding to a marked escalation of tension in the region following a series of North Korean missile and nuclear tests.
The US did halt the drills during this year’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, but the exercises resumed after the games, including the Foal Eagle and Key Resolve exercises in April and Max Thunder drills in May.
But those drills were more subdued than previous years, with bomber flights out of Guam excluded from Max Thunder.
Until the lull that occurred with the Olympics, however, the US had put on massive displays of force in and around the Korean Peninsula, including the positioning of three US Navy aircraft carriers in waters off Korea last November.
It was the first time three of the 100,000-ton behemoths sailed together in the Western Pacific in a decade. They were joined by South Korean and Japanese warships during the exercise.
Trump touted the presence of the carriers during a visit to Seoul last November.
“I think we’re showing great strength,” Trump said at the time. “We sent three of the largest aircraft carriers in the world (to the Korean Peninsula) and a nuclear submarine is also positioned.”
“We hope to God we never have to use” the military strength the US has on the Korean Peninsula, Trump said.
The US and South signed a mutual defense treaty in 1953 after the end of the Korean War and US forces have been a continuous presence in the country since.
Major US installations currently include Osan and Kunsan air bases, which host squadrons composed of F-16 fighter jets and A-10 ground-attack jets.
US Army units are deployed to garrsions including Humphreys, Daegu, Yongsan, and Red Cloud/Casey near the demilitarized zone with North Korea.
Kim agrees to denuclearization
After nearly five hours of unprecedented talks between Trump and Kim, the two leaders signed a document in which Kim “reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” and the US agreed to “provide security guarantees.” Trump also told reporters in a news conference in Singapore that Kim would be destroying a major missile engine testing site “very soon.”
But there was no mentioning the previous US aim of “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization.” And Kim’s commitments did not appear to go beyond what he already pledged to do in April when he met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in along their countries’ border.
Asked whether he thinks the North Korean dictator is willing to change, Trump told ABC News, “Over my lifetime, I’ve done a lot of deals with a lot of people, and sometimes the people that you most distrust turn out to be the most honorable ones, and the people that you do trust they are not the honorable ones.”
Trump said the US will be monitoring the situation in North Korea to be sure that Kim is committed to dismantling his country’s nuclear program.