Trump vows to 'end war games' with South Korea, leaving Pentagon and allies nervous

South Korean troops and American Marines take part in a joint military drill in Pohang, South Korea, in 2016. Photo: Getty Images

The US military will stop "war games" on the Korean Peninsula, US President Donald Trump said on Tuesday, as he convinced North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to back "complete denuclearization" in a written agreement.

Exercises carried out each year by the US and South Korean militaries have been consistently cited by Pyongyang as a US rehearsal for war, and a reason it needs to build a nuclear arsenal.

"Under the circumstances that we're negotiating a very comprehensive complete deal I think it's inappropriate to have war games ... It is something that [North Korea] very much appreciated," Trump said at a post-summit news conference in Singapore.

The US president said that joint US-South Korean military exercises were "very provocative" and "tremendously expensive", attacking a policy his own administration has pursued until now.

"The war games are very expensive; we paid for a big majority of them, we fly in bombers from Guam," Trump said.

"That's a long time for these big massive planes to be flying to South Korea to practice and then drop bombs all over the place and then go back to Guam. I know a lot about airplanes, it's very expensive," he added.

Trump also floated the possibility of one day pulling America's tens of thousands of troops out of South Korea, though he said that the move was not currently under consideration.

"I want to get our soldiers out. I want to bring our soldiers back home," Trump said. "But that's not part of the equation right now. I hope it will be eventually."

On Monday, US Defense Secretary James Mattis said that US troop levels in South Korea were not part of negotiations with Pyongyang.

The US maintains around 30,000 troops in South Korea, as well as a base for Air Force fighter plane squadrons. Exercises also typically involve planes and ships coming in from elsewhere, mostly notably from the island of Guam, in the Western Pacific.

Surprise to Pentagon, allies

Trump's announcement about a halt to joint military exercises with South Korea surprised Pentagon and allies.

Hours after Trump's announcement in Singapore, American troops in Seoul said that they are still moving ahead with a military exercise this fall — Ulchi Freedom Guardian — until they receive guidance otherwise from the chain of command.

Lt. Col. Jennifer Lovett, a US military spokeswoman in South Korea, said in an email that the American command there "has received no updated guidance on execution or cessation of training exercises — to include this fall's schedule Ulchi Freedom Guardian."

"We will continue with our current military posture until we receive updated guidance from the Department of Defense," she added.

In Washington, officials at the Pentagon, State Department and White House were scrambling to figure out exactly the impact of Trump's comments.

'The Department of Defense continues to work with the White House, the interagency, and our allies and partners on the way forward," Lt. Col. Christopher Logan, a Pentagon spokesman, said in an email. "We will provide additional information as it becomes available."

In Seoul, President Moon Jae-in of South Korea hailed Trump's meeting with North Korean leader Kim. Moon called the joint statement that was released after the meeting "a historic event that has helped break down the last remaining Cold War legacy on earth."

But Trump's promise to end joint military exercises with Seoul left many South Koreans stunned. The annual exercises have been an integral part of the alliance, forming the bulwark of South Korea's defense against North Korea and Seoul's sense of security among bigger powers in the region.

Trump's announcement raised fears in the South Korean capital that Washington was making concessions too fast, before North Korea has dismantled its nuclear weapons.

The South Korean Defense Ministry hurriedly issued a curt statement saying that it was trying to figure out Trump's intentions.

The decision was quickly portrayed by critics as a one-sided giveaway to a country that maintains one of the largest standing military forces in the world.

"These exercises for years have served as an important signal that the United States supports our allies in the region," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said in a statement. "It concerns me that the president is making concessions to North Korea with nothing to show in return."

Former Vice President Joe Biden said that Trump had "reduced our leverage and signaled a weakening of our alliance in return for vague promises to begin nuclear negotiations" from an adversary that repeatedly has broken promises.

Sen. David Perdue of Georgia, a Republican member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters he was “very troubled” and “surprised.”

Administration officials said halting the joint exercises is a relatively modest concession that has great symbolic importance to Pyongyang. By helping to build trust between two longtime adversaries, the officials argued, the US action could make it more likely that Kim will move forward on talks aimed at eliminating his nuclear arsenal.

But Trump's seemingly off-hand remarks, without warning to allies South Korea and Japan, marked a potentially sharp shift in US defense posture in East Asia and contradicted decades of statements by American officials that the exercises are defensive only and critical for deterring North Korea.

North Korea's main ally China had pushed for the end of the US military exercises on the Korean Peninsula in exchange for North Korea freezing its nuclear weapons program. It was responding to a marked escalation of tension in the region following a series of North Korean missile and nuclear tests.

The US did halt the drills during this year's Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, but the exercises resumed after the games, including the Foal Eagle and Key Resolve exercises in April and Max Thunder drills in May.

But those drills were more subdued than previous years, with bomber flights out of Guam excluded from Max Thunder.

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