South Korea: Joint Exercises Off Only if North Korea Denuclearizes

US-South Korea military exercises have long been a source of irritation for North Korea, which considers them preparation for an invasion
South Korean Defence Ministry/AFP

South Korea’s presidential office said Thursday that leftist President Moon Jae-in would consider ending joint military exercises with the United States if North Korea “implements denuclearization measures and sincere dialogue continues.”

President Donald Trump announced Tuesday that the United States would no longer participate in joint military exercises with South Korea following a meeting in Singapore with dictator Kim Jong-un. There was no immediate indication that South Korea had agreed to this new course of action before Trump had announced it. Instead, South Korean officials stated that they were still trying to clarify the true intent of Trump’s words.

On Thursday, Moon Jae-in’s office said that he had told members of this National Security Council that he was considering ending the exercises, not that he had agreed to do so.

“President Moon said if North Korea implements denuclearization measures and sincere dialogue continues between South Korea and the North, the North and the United States, to ease their hostile relations, the country needs to flexibly change its military pressure against the North in the spirit of building mutual trust as agreed in the Panmunjom Declaration,” a spokesman for the Blue House, South Korea’s presidential palace, said.

The statement from the Blue House quoted Moon as saying, according to the Yonhap News Agency, “Most of all, it is important to understand that removing military tensions and hostile relations between the two countries by establishing a new North Korea-U.S. relationship and opening new relations in the future is the only way to completely denuclearize North Korea and bring peace to the Korean Peninsula.”

Yet the statement ultimately said Moon would “carefully consider the possibility of suspending” joint military exercises, not that he had already suspended them.

Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha echoed Moon in remarks to reporters Thursday during a joint briefing with American and Japanese counterparts Mike Pompeo and Taro Kono.

“With regards to the Korea-U.S. joint military exercise, this is an issue that involves the Korea-U.S. alliance, and this regards consultations between the military authorities of the two countries, Korea and the United States, and it will be the case in the future as well,” Kang said. “We have the preconditions that we would like to maintain an ironclad posture, defense postures, as an alliance. And between the three ministers this issue has not been discussed in depth, and I believe that this is an issue to be further consulted and coordinated between the military authorities of Korea and the United States.”

Kono also weighed in, stating that Japan “understand[s] that any pause in exercise is contingent upon DPRK action towards denuclearization.”

On Tuesday, Trump told reporters in Singapore that the “war games” were a thing of the past.

“We will stop the war games which will save us a tremendous amount of money,” Trump told reporters after meeting with Kim. Trump said he would also one day wish to bring American troops stationed on the Korean border home, but noted, “That’s not part of the equation. At some point, I hope it would be.”

Reports have speculated on what, specifically Trump meant to cancel when he promised an end to “war games.” South Korea’s Joongang Ilbo, citing CNN, reports sources within the administration saying the first joint exercises to go may be Ulchi Guardian Freedom, scheduled for August. The biggest joint exercises between the two states, Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, typically occur every March and April, giving Washington plenty of time to backtrack on its cancelation.

“There are currently consultations on this issue happening under close cooperation between South Korea and the United States,” South Korean defense ministry spokeswoman Choi Hyun-soo told reporters Thursday, according to Joongang. She refused to elaborate further.

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