Trump's Freeze of Korea Joint Exercises Catches Allies by Surprise

President Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Sentosa Island, Tuesday, June 12, 2018, in Singapore. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Sentosa Island, Tuesday, June 12, 2018, in Singapore. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Donald Trump's announcement Tuesday of the suspension of joint military exercises with South Korea appeared to catch U.S. Forces-Korea and members of his own party by surprise, but Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said he was consulted beforehand.

At a news conference before leaving the Singapore summit, Trump also speculated on the long-term possibility of withdrawing the 28,500 U.S. troops in Korea if the initial agreement with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un leads to denuclearization and peace.

"Under the circumstances that we're negotiating a very comprehensive complete deal, I think it's inappropriate to have war games," Trump said of the joint military exercises that for decades have bolstered U.S. and South Korean readiness.

"It is something that [North Korea] very much appreciated," he said, adding that the exercises cost too much and are seen as provocative by North Korea. The North has traditionally railed against the joint exercises and charged that they are practice for an invasion.

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

Trump also said he hopes the thaw in relations with North Korea will eventually allow him to withdraw U.S. troops from the peninsula. "I want to get our soldiers out. I want to bring our soldiers back home," he said, "but that's not part of the equation right now. I hope it will be eventually."

The president's suspension of the exercises came as U.S. Forces-Korea, led by Army Gen. Vincent Brooks, is preparing for the annual Ulchi-Freedom Guardian exercises later this summer with the South Koreans.

Last year, about 50,000 South Korean and 17,500 U.S. troops participated in Ulchi-Freedom Guardian, billed as the world's largest command-and-control exercise and aimed at defending against a North Korean attack.

In a statement, U.S. Forces-Korea said it had received no guidance or forewarning of Trump's announcement of the halt to the exercises, and South Korea professed to be baffled.

"In coordination with our ROK [South Korean] 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 U.S. Forces-Korea statement said.

"At this moment, we need to figure out President Trump's accurate meaning and intention" on the exercises, said a statement from the office of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, CNN reported.

Trump's remarks also caused confusion among his Republican allies on Capitol Hill. At a Defense Writers Group breakfast, Sen. David Perdue, R-Georgia, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said, "I'm very troubled today" by the president's halt to the exercises.

"I was surprised," he said, according to a report by Breaking Defense. But "I've never agreed with 100 percent of what this president says off the cuff like that."

Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that Trump "agreed to forgo joint exercises with the South Koreans, which has been a bulwark of our defense policy for decades, without significant concessions like a concrete timeline for denuclearization from the other side."

Mattis was not among the surprised, according to a spokeswoman. "The secretary is in full alignment with the president to meet his goal, which is denuclearization of the peninsula," Pentagon chief spokeswoman Dana White said.

"He was not surprised. He was consulted" before Trump halted the exercises, she added.

On Monday, Mattis told Pentagon reporters that there had been no discussions on future withdrawals of U.S. troops from Korea.

"Right now, the U.S. and South Korea are not engaged [on troop withdrawal], and we're the only ones who make up our mind on this," he said. "We're not engaged in any reduction of U.S. forces talks, and I think we all wait until after this settles and we go forward."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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