The government of South Korea issued a statement Tuesday expressing confusion regarding President Donald Trump’s announcement that he would end joint military exercises with Seoul as part of an agreement with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.
Kim and Trump met in Singapore on Tuesday, the first such meeting between an American head of state and a leader of the North Korean communist Kim cult. Following a private exchange with only translators on hand and a subsequent working meeting with trusted aides, the two sides signed an agreement to promote peace on the Korean peninsula and work towards ending their current state of war.
President Trump also announced an end to annual joint military exercises with South Korea.
“We will stop the war games which will save us a tremendous amount of money,” Trump told reporters during a press conference after his meeting with Kim. Trump described the exercises as “very provocative” and said Pyongyang “very much appreciated” seeing the exercises end.
While an armistice agreement in 1953 ended active hostilities in the Korean War, neither side ever signed a peace treaty, making the Korean War one of history’s longest ongoing military conflicts.
A statement from South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s palace, the Blue House, appeared to indicate that Seoul was not privy to Trump’s decision on the exercises.
“At this moment we need to figure out President Trump’s accurate meaning and intention of this comment,” the statement read. “However, we believe we need to seek various measures how to efficiently move forward the dialogues [as] serious talks are being conducted to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula and establish relationships between North Korea and the United States.”
The wording recalls Seoul’s reaction to Trump’s initial cancellation of the summit with Kim two weeks ago, after North Korean officials lobbed personal insults at National Security Adviser John Bolton and Vice President Mike Pence. At the time, Moon himself said he was “very perplexed,” and his officials stated the South Korean government was trying to ensure that they properly understood Trump’s meaning.
Trump rescheduled the summit following the receipt of a contrite letter from Pyongyang stating that Kim was ready to meet and discuss diplomacy if Trump was still willing.
Moon Jae-in himself congratulated Trump and Kim on the summit, occurring after Moon and Kim had personally met twice, both times in the border town of Panmunjom.
“I offer my heartfelt congratulations and welcome the success of the historic North Korea-United States summit,” Moon said in his official statement on the summit, adding:
I pay my high compliments for the courage and determination of the two leaders, President Trump and Chairman Kim, not to settle for that outdated and familiar reality but to take a daring step towards change. The June 12 Sentosa Agreement will be recorded as a historic event that has helped break down the last remaining Cold War legacy on earth.
Seoul’s reaction to the end of joint military exercises echoes the reaction of U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), the Pentagon’s organizational structure in the country. Responding to an inquiry from South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency, USFK replied, “The USFK has received no updated guidance on execution or cessation of training exercises — to include this fall’s scheduled Ulchi Freedom Guardian.”
“In coordination with our ROK (South Korean) partners, we will continue with our current military posture until we receive updated guidance from the Department of Defense (DoD) and/or Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM),” the statement concluded.
USFK also confirmed that the White House had not indicated any reduction in the number of troops in South Korea, consistent with Trump’s promise not to remove any until far later in the process of normalizing relations with Pyongyang. America maintains about 28,000 troops in South Korea at any given time.
North Korea repeatedly threatened the United States for years with nuclear annihilation in response to the joint military exercises with the South. In 2016, North Korea’s state media promised a “pre-emptive nuclear strike of justice” to “clearly show those keen on aggression and war, the military mettle of (North Korea).”
“If we push the buttons to annihilate the enemies even right now, all bases of provocations will be reduced to seas in flames and ashes in a moment,” that statement continued.
“The joint exercise is the most explicit expression of hostility against us, and no one can guarantee that the exercise won’t evolve into actual fighting,” North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun government newspaper protested a year later. The exercises, it claimed, were “reckless behaviour driving the situation into the uncontrollable phase of a nuclear war.”
Last month, North Korea’s state media declared the exercises a “senseless act of disregarding elementary etiquette,” reflecting the toned-down rhetoric following Trump’s agreement to meet Kim. Pyongyang did cancel a working meeting between high-level North and South Korean officials in May because Seoul refused not to participate in exercises with Washington.