SEOUL–U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to suspend “war games” with South Korea may have been an impromptu reaction amid the enormity of his June 12 summit in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Whatever the reason, North Korean media the following day reported that Trump indicated that the military exercises between the United States and South Korea would be suspended.
“The U.S. president expressed his intention to suspend joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises, which North Korea considers a provocation, during the period of dialogue between North Korea and the United States,” the state organ Rodong Sinmun said in its digital version about the Trump-Kim summit.
At his June 12 news conference in Singapore after meeting with Kim, Trump called the military exercises “war games.” North Korean media has also described such exercises as “playing with fire that could lead to war.”
Before the Singapore summit, the United States and South Korea had made clear that legally approved military exercises would not be subject to negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.
Trump may have simply gone along with a request made by the North Korean side during the summit.
“He may have been influenced by something Kim Jong Un said,” a source in the South Korean military said. “He may not have been able to hide his excitement at being able to meet with Kim Jong Un.”
The U.S. and South Korean militaries hold a series of joint exercises every year in and around the Korean Peninsula.
The Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise held every August or so offers an opportunity for military officers on both sides to reconfirm new military strategies.
During the Foal Eagle and the Key Resolve, two major exercises conducted every spring, additional U.S. troops are deployed to the Korean Peninsula to coordinate landing drills and other maneuvers between the two militaries.
“If the suspension of military exercises should extend over a long period of time, it could invite military provocations by North Korea and would decrease the capability to deal with military emergencies,” a former high-ranking South Korean military officer said.
In the past, the United States has deployed aircraft carriers and strategic bombers during exercises held soon after North Korea fires ballistic missiles or conducts nuclear tests.
Although other military exercises have been suspended in the past, the basic policy of recent U.S. administrations has been that suspending such exercises would be “unthinkable.”
South Korean President Moon Jae-in could possibly express his understanding about suspending the military exercises because his administration has lobbied both the United States and North Korea to further promote peace on the Korean Peninsula.
On June 12, a high-ranking South Korean government official said military exercises should be suspended while dialogue was continuing between the United States and North Korea. But the official added that discussions between South Korea and the United States would be necessary to extend the suspension over a long period of time.
The Moon administration has been calling for a defense policy that does not depend excessively on the United States and has resisted certain efforts to strengthen the U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula.
In particular, South Korea had expressed a cautious approach to the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system.
Seoul has also resisted U.S. requests to shoulder a greater financial burden for the deployment of strategic weapons to South Korea.
The issue of joint military exercises could be another factor that further drives a wedge between the United States and South Korea in national security matters.