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South, U.S. are in talks to halt military exercises

June 16,2018
The South Korean and U.S. defense chiefs are working together to fulfill President Donald Trump’s call to halt joint military exercises between the two countries, a Pentagon spokesperson said on Thursday.

In their first phone call after a historic summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo and U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis “discussed their mutual support for ongoing diplomatic efforts, to include how their two nations are working together to fulfill the president’s guidance on U.S.-South Korean combined military exercises,” Dana White, a Defense Department spokesperson, said in a statement.

The two defense chiefs also “pledged to continue working closely together towards regional peace and stability,” she added.

In Seoul, a high-ranking Blue House official confirmed on Friday that South Korea had already begun consulting with the United States about the future of their joint military exercises, including one major drill next week, and plans to announce a decision soon.

There are expectations that the two countries will suspend their next large-scale exercise, Ulchi-Freedom Guardian, a computer-simulated exercise that is usually held in August for two weeks. During their summit on Tuesday, Trump and Kim signed a joint statement in which they committed to the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in exchange for security guarantees in the North.

While the text did not mention military exercises, Trump immediately announced in a news conference afterward that he was calling off “war games” - referring to the joint military exercises - because they are costly, provocative and “inappropriate” in a situation where the United States and North Korea are “negotiating a very comprehensive, complete deal.”

The high-ranking Blue House official told reporters in Seoul on Friday that “nothing has been decided on the adjustment of the Ulchi-Freedom Guardian exercise. However, a position will be announced soon through close consultation between South Korea and the United States.”

President Moon Jae-in ordered his aides to review the matter of joint military exercises in a National Security Council meeting the previous day. Moon said there was a need for “flexible change” in military posturing to keep with the current spirit of trust-building among the Koreas and the United States. However, this is under the condition that North Korea sincerely implements steps toward denuclearization and continues dialogue with South Korea and the United States, Moon said.

“The United States agrees with and shares our government’s position, which is why the two governments started such discussions,” the Blue House official said.

However, the official would not confirm if the two governments had discussed the matter before Trump’s announcement in Singapore. “There are many close consultations between South Korea and the United States over security matters,” he said, including “active dialogue during preparations for the North-U.S. summit.”

On a similar matter, the official said that the issue of U.S. troop withdrawal from South Korea “is not on the table in North-U.S. negotiations, as it is a matter of the South-U.S. alliance.” That issue, he said, “was not discussed between South Korea and the United States, and there is no change in position.” Trump, likewise, had stated the issue was not discussed in his meeting with Kim.

The official further said that Seoul, Pyongyang and Washington were reviewing a formal declaration to end the Korean War, which concluded with an armistice agreement rather than a peace treaty. Such discussions are happening between South Korea and the United States, he said, and will include the North if necessary.

North-U.S. talks are expected to resume soon after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo returns to Washington, the official said, adding, “Depending on the progress of those negotiations, we expect there will be, at an appropriate time, a process toward declaring an end to the war or replacing the current armistice with a peace treaty.”

Pompeo, after briefing the South Korean and Japanese foreign ministers on the North-U.S. summit in Seoul on Thursday, met with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, later that day. South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Lim Sung-nam is heading to Washington on Sunday for the South Korea-U.S. Strategic Forum.

Citing a senior U.S. official, Agence France-Presse reported on Thursday that large-scale military drills between the United States and South Korea have been “suspended indefinitely on the Korean Peninsula.” However, South Korean defense authorities have not yet confirmed the scope and timing of such a suspension.

Retired Adm. Harry Harris, Trump’s nominee for U.S. ambassador to Seoul, said during his confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday that he supported a “pause” in large-scale military exercises to give negotiating with North Korea a shot.

“Today, following the summit, we are in a dramatically different place,” Harris said. “The landscape has shifted. I believe we should give exercises - major exercises - a pause to see if Kim Jong-un is in fact serious about his part of the negotiations.”

He addressed confusion over Trump’s remark about “war games” and said he believed the president meant “major exercises,” noting that U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has stated that regular readiness training exercises will continue.

Harris, former head of the U.S. Pacific Command, said he recognized that such major exercises “are certainly of concern to North Korea and to China, but we do them in order to exercise our ability to work and interoperate with our South Korean allies.”

He also said that “decisions are made with our South Korean ally and not made unilaterally” and that Seoul also needs to “make their decisions based on the alliance as well.” It is important to stay “synchronized and aligned” with South Korea, he said.

Harris acknowledged that the Singapore summit “wasn’t designed to solve all issues at once” and said it was “a starting point to start serious negotiations.” Likewise, he defined denuclearization as the “complete denuclearization of equipment, research, existing stockpiles and all of that, including means to deliver them.”

A halt in major military exercises can help “create some breathing space” for negotiations with Kim to see if he is “serious on his part of the deal or not,” he said. “We can be hopeful,” he added. “We can even be optimistic as long as we are realistic also.”

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]