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Trump’s vow to end US-SKorea drills catches Pentagon off guard

South Korean Marines storm a beach in the southeastern port of Pohang during joint drills with the US military last year
AFP

Washington (AFP) – Pentagon officials scrambled for a clear message Tuesday about the US military presence in South Korea, after President Donald Trump vowed at his summit with the North’s leader Kim Jong Un to cancel “provocative” joint drills.

Trump surprised observers when he told reporters after the unprecedented meeting in Singapore that continuing the exercises routinely held between the US and South Korean militaries would be “inappropriate” while the US works to flesh out a comprehensive deal with North Korea.

“We will be stopping the war games, which will save us a tremendous amount of money, unless and until we see the future negotiation is not going along like it should,” Trump said.

“Plus, I think it’s very provocative,” he noted, adding that “at some point” he wanted to withdraw US troops from the South.

The pledge, absent from the joint statement Trump signed with Kim, appeared to come as news to both South Korea and the Pentagon.

US Forces Korea (USFK), which comprises about 28,500 troops permanently based in South Korea, received no immediate new guidance on upcoming joint training exercises, including so-called Ulchi Freedom Guardian scheduled for later this year.

“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,” Colonel Chad Carroll, spokesman for USFK, said in a statement.

Meanwhile at the Pentagon, officials ducked in and out of meetings to discuss what would amount to an epic shift in how the US military has been postured in South Korea for decades. 

The defining motto of troops there is that they are prepared to “fight tonight,” and joint drills are seen as the most integral component of that readiness.

“The Department of Defense continues to work with the White House, the interagency, and our allies and partners on the way forward following the US/(North Korea)summit,” Pentagon spokesman Chris Sherwood said.

“We will provide additional information as it becomes available.”

Colonel Rob Manning, another spokesman, said: “We are going to be aligned with the president,” while noting that the readiness of US forces would remain “paramout.”

– ‘Troubling’ concession –

Trump’s statements in Singapore also point to what appears to be a growing gap between him and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

Only hours before the summit, Mattis told Pentagon reporters that, as far as he knew, the issue of US troops in South Korea would not be part of any discussion in Singapore.

Mattis has also been a staunch defender of America’s long-standing alliances and the security and economic superstructure it engineered after World War II.

But Trump refused to endorse a communique at the G7 summit over the weekend that said participants were “guided by our shared values of freedom, democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights and our commitment to promote a rules-based international order.”

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said it was “troubling” that Trump had agreed to suspend joint drills without making any reference to North Korea dialing back its conventional military threat. 

“The Singapore summit statement is essentially aspirational: no definitions of denuclearization, no timelines, no details as to verification,” Haass said on Twitter. 

“What is most troubling about all this is that the US gave up something tangible, namely, US-RoK military exercises, in exchange,” he added, using the abbreviation for South Korea’s official name. 

Still, he credited the summit for starting a diplomatic process between North Korea and the United States.

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