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Hamish Macdonald is an NK News contributor and has previously worked at The Korea Herald and for the Australia Centre for Independent Journalism in Sydney.
The United States will end its annual joint military exercises with South Korea while diplomacy with North Korea continues, President Donald Trump said on Tuesday.
Speaking at an hour-long press conference in Singapore following the signing of a joint statement with Kim Jong Un, the U.S. President said it would be “inappropriate” for the drills to take place while talks with the DPRK were ongoing.
The U.S. has consistently reiterated its position that joint U.S.-ROK military exercises are “defensive in nature” and necessary as a deterrent against North Korean provocations.
The President on Tuesday, however, described the exercises as “war games,” and complained about their cost.
“We will be stopping the war games, which will save us a tremendous amount of money,” the President said, later saying they were “very provocative, it’s a very provocative situation.”
“Under the circumstances, it’s inappropriate to be having war games.”
The U.S. and South Korea typically hold a number of joint military drills a year, including Foal Eagle/Key Resolve (FE/KR) and Ulchi Freedom Guardian (UFG), among others.
The two were set to start UFG in August – though earlier in the month South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) said they would refrain from excessive publicity of the drill.
Those comments, however, also saw the MND firmly rule out any cancellation of the exercises.
North Korea typically denounces the joint drills as aggressive and part of preparations for an invasion of the DPRK.
It appeared on Tuesday that the U.S.’s main partner in these drills, South Korea, was not informed in advance of their cancellation.
“At this time, need clarification of the precise meaning and intention behind President Trump’s remarks,” a spokesperson for the ROK MND said in a statement.
Speaking to Stars and Stripes on Tuesday, a spokesperson for U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) said that the military had received “no updated guidance on execution or cessation of training exercises” including for the UFG drills.
“In coordination with our partners, we will continue with our current military posture until we receive updated guidance from the Department of Defense … and/or Indo-Pacific Command,” the outlet reported Col. Jennifer Lovett as saying via email.
The joint statement signed by Trump and Kim on Tuesday included a provision that committed North Korea “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
The language is noticeably weaker than U.S. messaging prior to the summit regarding Complete, Verifiable and Irreversible Denuclearization (CVID).
Despite this, Trump said he believes the statement was sufficient proof that the DPRK would be abandoning its nuclear weapons entirely, adding that language regarding CVID could not be included due to time constraints.
“Chairman Kim and I just signed a joint statement in which he reaffirmed his unwavering commitment to (the) complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Trump said in his opening statement.
“We also agreed to vigorous negotiations to implement the agreement as soon as possible and [Kim] wants to do that,” he added.
Trump also asserted that the “full denuclearization of North Korea” will be verified and this point was discussed between the two delegations.
Following questions from the press Trump said that there would be both a combination of U.S. and international experts involved in the verification process.
He was reluctant to commit to any time frame and warned it could take an extended period of time.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton will be meeting with North Korean representatives to continue prior discussions next week, Trump revealed, though it is unclear if these talks will cover the issue of CVID.
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With a lack of language regarding CVID, questions from the press inevitably touched on whether or North Korea’s commitment to denuclearization was genuine.
While Trump said he could not “ensure anything” he said that he “just feels very strongly” that the DPRK “want to make a deal, and making a deal is a great thing for the world.”
He also cited steps already taken by Pyongyang, including the alleged dismantlement of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site in May, a halt to nuclear and ballistic missile tests, and – according to Trump – an apparent verbal promise to destroy a significant missile test site.
“They secured the commitment to destroy the missile engine testing side – that was not in your agreement, I got that after we signed the agreement,” he said, without adding specific details of the location.
The President on Tuesday asserted that sanctions – a key tenant of his “maximum pressure” campaign – will remain in place until further steps are taken by the DPRK towards denuclearization, consistent with U.S. messaging prior to the summit.
“The sanctions will come off when we are sure that the nukes are no longer a factor. Sanctions played a big role, but they’ll come off at that point, and I hope it’s gonna be soon,” Trump said.
Trump in his opening statement thanked China and its President Xi Jinping for closing up its border with the DPRK during the pressure campaign, while also alluding to Beijing’s reported relaxation of sanctions in recent months.
During the press conference Q&A session, he said that China’s actions may have been linked to ongoing trade negotiations with the U.S., while insisting leverage to enforce sanctions pressure still exists.
Trump, in fact, revealed that he “had 300 sanctions” that he was “getting ready to put on last week” but thought it would be “disrespectful” considering the impending summit.
On the issue of human rights, the President told press he had raised the issue in his talks with the North Korean leader.
“It will be discussed more in the future,” he said, while stipulating that the topic was raised “relatively briefly.”
He also said he believed Kim Jong Un “wants to do things” on the issue.
And when asked about the hundreds of thousands believed to be held in North Korean political prison camps, Trump said he believed he had “helped” them with his agreement today.
“They are the great winners of today,” the President said.
The President was also asked about Otto Warmbier, an American collegue student who died last year following over a year’s imprisonment in North Korea, in the context of his claims that Kim Jong Un was a very “talented” person.
“He is very talented, anybody who takes over a situation like he did at 26 years of age and is able to run it, and run it tough,” he said.
“I think without Otto [Warmbier], this [summit] would not have happened,” he added. “Something happened from that day, it was a terrible thing, it was brutal, but a lot of people started to focus on what was going on. Including North Korea.”
Trump also told media that he had raised the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by the DPRK with the North Korean leader – something he had discussed extensively in meetings with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last year – and the issue of religion freedom.
Reiterating comments made earlier in the day, Tuesday saw the President say he would invite Kim Jong Un to the White House “at an appropriate time,” while adding that the North Korean leader had accepted.
That visit will happen “far down the line,” he stipulated, while also saying he would like to visit the North Korean capital “at a certain time.”
Colin Zwirko and Dagyum Ji contributed reporting
Featured image: U.S. Pacific Command