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Major joint drills to be halted

If Pyongyang drags its feet, they can be restored, says Seoul
June 18,2018
South Korea and the United States have tentatively agreed to halt major joint military exercises as long as the United States sees progress in denuclearization talks with North Korea, a local government source said Sunday.

An official announcement on the matter is expected to be made this week and take effect immediately. The earliest drill to be affected will likely be the Ulchi Freedom Guardian, a computer-simulated exercise that’s usually held in August for two weeks.

If the North fails to show serious commitment to denuclearize, the drills will automatically be back on, said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Talks on the issue of joint drills have been ongoing between the two countries’ militaries since South Korean National Defense Minister Song Young-moo held a telephone conversation with his American counterpart Jim Mattis last Friday, according to the local official.

The talks were said to be focused on halting combined exercises between the allies, an idea that was initially floated by U.S. President Donald Trump last Tuesday following his first summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Trump said at a news conference after the meeting that he would call off “war games” between his country and South Korea - referring to the joint military exercises - because they were costly, provocative and “inappropriate” in a situation where the U.S. and North Korea were negotiating a comprehensive deal, which apparently caught the Pentagon and Seoul off guard.

The next test of North Korea’s willingness to give up its nuclear weapons will come this week when Washington and Pyongyang kick off working-level talks to flesh out the Sentosa agreement signed between Kim and Trump during their summit.

In the agreement, the leaders vowed to hold follow-up negotiations led by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a “relevant high-level” official from the North at the “earliest possible date” to implement the agreements made at the summit.

A timeline wasn’t specified in the agreement, but Trump told international reporters in a press conference after the summit that officials from both countries would get together this week “to go into the details.”

For Trump, the follow-up meetings will have to prove that he wasn’t repeating the “mistake of past administrations,” his mantra for dealing with the North’s nuclear crisis, which he failed to show last week.

In the days since his meeting with Kim, Trump has taken numerous opportunities to defend the summit as he faces mounting criticism at home and skepticism from abroad.

Last Friday, Trump made a stop on the North Lawn of the White House to promote the Sentosa agreement to reporters, stressing he was on good terms with Kim.

“They’re doing so much,” Trump said, referring to the North’s halt of missile tests and nuclear experiments. “And now we’re well on our way to denuclearization. And the agreement says there will be total denuclearization. Nobody wants to report that.”

Trump continued, “So the only thing I did was meet. I got along with him great. He is great. We have a great chemistry together. That’s a good thing, not a bad thing.”

An official at South Korea’s Foreign Ministry, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, said Kim could have made some concessions to Trump during the summit that weren’t documented in their agreement, like when he told Moon during their first summit on April 27 that his country would invite journalists and experts to watch the demolition of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site. Ultimately, the North only invited journalists.

In that case, any behind-closed-doors deals could be ironed out during upcoming talks between Pyongyang and Washington, the local source continued.

Woo Jung-yeop, a research fellow at the department of security strategy studies at the Sejong Institute, said Trump’s decision to halt exercises could be a gesture that Pyongyang has to reciprocate.

BY LEE SUNG-EUN, LEE CHUL-JAE AND PARK YU-MI [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]