America’s top diplomat has flown to South Korea to explain Donald Trump’s surprise announcement to end “very provocative” joint military exercises – something many consider a major concession to North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.
While Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Seoul to talk with the foreign ministers of South Korea and Japan had been planned for some time, the meeting has taken on heightened significance after Mr Trump said he wanted to halt the annual expensive “war games” and would like to remove all 28,500 US troops stationed in the South, though not immediately.
Before flying on to Beijing on Thursday to brief Chinese officials on the details of the Singapore summit, the Yonhap news agency said Mr Pompeo will visit South Korean president Moon Jae In, who had his own historic meeting with Mr Kim in April and who has been praised for pressing for peace and dialogue with the North.
In one of the most startling elements of the summit, Mr Trump told reporters he wanted to end the joint military exercises with South Korea.
In an interview with ABC, he added: “You know, we’re spending a fortune, every couple of months we’re doing war games with South Korea, and I said, ‘What’s this costing’,” he said. “We’re flying planes in from Guam, we’re bombing empty mountains for practice. I said ‘I want to stop’ that and I will stop that, and I think it’s very provocative.”
The comments appeared to catch both the US military and South Korea by surprise. While the Pentagon claimed defence secretary Jim Mattis had been briefed in advance, it appeared he had not informed troops in South Korea.
Meanwhile, South Korea’s Presidential Blue House said it needed to “to find out the precise meaning or intentions” of Mr Trump’s statement, adding that it was willing to “explore various measures to help the talks move forward more smoothly”.
One South Korean official told Reuters he initially thought Mr Trump had misspoken. “I was shocked when he called the exercises ‘provocative,’ a very unlikely word to be used by a US president,” said the official.
On Wednesday, Japan’s defence chief said the US military’s presence in South Korea and joint military exercises were “vital” for East Asian security. “We would like to seek an understanding of this between Japan, the US and South Korea,” Japan’s Minister of Defence Itsunori Onodera told reporters.
Onodera said Japan would continue joint military exercises with the United States and would stick to plans to bolster its defences against a possible ballistic missile strike from North Korea.
US forces in South Korea said they had not been informed of any changes to their operations, which includes Ulchi Freedom Guardian, one of the largest military exercises in the world. The war games spread over 11 days and involve thousands of US and South Korean troops, an event North Korea has long described as being a deliberate provocation.
Lt Col Jennifer Lovett, a United States military spokeswoman in South Korea, told the New York Times the US command there “has received no updated guidance on execution or cessation of training exercises to include this fall’s schedule Ulchi Freedom Guardian”. She added: “We will continue with our current military posture until we receive updated guidance from the Department of Defence.”
Straight after the summit’s conclusion, Mr Pompeo telephoned Japanese foreign minister Taro Kono and his South Korean counterpart Kang Kyung Wha.
“Just spoke with FM Kono & FM Kang to provide a brief readout of today’s meeting btw @POTUS & Chairman Kim at #singaporesummit,” Mr Pompeo tweeted.
The summit, the first meeting between a North Korean leader and a sitting US president, was intended to bring peace on a peninsula where Seoul and Pyongyang technically remain at war. The Korean War ended only with an armistice.
South Korea’s Mr Moon and the North’s Mr Kim have agreed to seek an official end to the war and to replace the Korean armistice with a peace agreeement.
Mr Trump’s statement was portrayed by some critics as an unreciprocated concession.
“Stopping the joint exercises has been a long-term goal for North Korea and China” two Asia analysts, Victor Cha and Sue Mi Terry, wrote for the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. “Trump delivered it while getting nothing in return beyond the same generalities that North Korea has been offering since the early 1990s.”