The US military has indefinitely postponed major joint exercises with South Korea, an official told AFP on Thursday, acting on President Donald Trump’s pledge to halt the “provocative” military drills following his summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
The move, a significant break in how the US and South Korean militaries have worked together for decades, came even as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned that peace efforts still face risks, and insisted sanctions must be maintained until Pyongyang dismantles its nuclear arsenal.
“Major military exercises have been suspended indefinitely on the Korean peninsula,” a senior US official told AFP. Trump on Tuesday had said the US would halt “war games” with its South Korean security ally — but he did not make clear when the freeze would kick in.
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.
– Verifiable denuclearization? –
Trump has sounded a triumphant tone since the Singapore summit, where he and Kim signed a joint statement in which Kim committed “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
But critics have pointed to the vague wording of the non-binding document, which Trump described as a “deal,” and to concerns among allies about the decision to stop the US-South Korean “war games.”
Speaking on a regional tour to brief South Korean, Japanese and Chinese officials about the historic summit, Pompeo said Washington remains committed to the “complete, verifiable and irreversible” denuclearization of North Korea.
“We believe that Kim Jong Un understands the urgency… that we must do this quickly,” he said of the effort to have North Korea abandon its atomic arsenal.
In Beijing, Pompeo also said China “reaffirmed its commitment” to United Nations sanctions after the foreign ministry suggested earlier this week that the UN Security Council could consider easing the economic punishment against its ally.
“We truly believe that we have a path forward after so many years that can bring peace,” Pompeo told Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi before talks with President Xi Jinping.
But, he warned, “there are still risks that we won’t achieve” that goal, and more work needs to be done.
Any reduction in tensions on its doorstep is welcome for China, which accounts for around 90 percent of Pyongyang’s trade.
Speaking alongside Wang, Pompeo said the UN resolutions have mechanisms for sanctions relief “and we agreed that at the appropriate time that those would be considered,” stressing that any relief would come only after “full denuclearization.”
Wang said China has a “firm commitment” to denuclearization but that North Korea’s “legitimate” concerns must be addressed.
North Korean state media reported Wednesday that Trump had not only offered to stop military exercises during the dialog, but also to lift sanctions imposed on Pyongyang — causing concern in Tokyo and Seoul.
– ‘Conflicting views’ –
Earlier, South Korean President Moon Jae-in acknowledged that “there may be very conflicting views” about the summit, but it had still helped mitigate fears of a nuclear war.
South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha appeared meanwhile to sidestep the issue of military drills, saying the matter would be left to military authorities to discuss, and that the US-South Korea alliance remained “as robust as ever.”
While it is not directly involved, Japan also considers the exercises vital.
Harry Harris, who until last month headed the US military’s huge Pacific Command, has been a staunch advocate of the military exercises.
But he told US lawmakers on Thursday that his position had changed.
“The whole landscape has shifted and I believe that we should give exercises, major exercises, a pause,” Harris told senators at his confirmation hearing to be the US envoy to South Korea.
In the latest step to ease cross-border friction, the two Koreas held their highest-level military talks in over a decade Thursday in the Demilitarized Zone that divides the two countries.
In a joint statement the two sides agreed to restore their military communication lines and to halt “hostile acts,” Yonhap news agency reported.
And Russian President Vladimir Putin conveyed to a senior North Korean official an invitation for Kim to visit Russia, as he praised the results of the summit.
– North Korea talking points? –
Trump had raised eyebrows by describing his own country’s drills on the Korean peninsula as “provocative,” a term used by the North for the exercises.
Pyongyang describes its nuclear weapons and long-range missiles as a shield against US aggression, and has in the past linked denuclearization to the removal of US forces from the peninsula.
Senior Republican Senator John McCain said suspending joint military exercises was a “mistake.”
“Making unnecessary and unreciprocated concessions is not in our interests — and it is a bad negotiating tactic,” McCain said in a statement.
“Parroting Chinese and North Korean propaganda by saying joint exercises are ‘provocative’ undermines our security and alliances.”