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South Korea Backs Ending US Military Exercises

South Korean marines take part in a U.S.-South Korea joint landing operation drill as a part of the two countries' annual military training called Foal Eagle, in Pohang, South Korea, April 2, 2017.

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang, Kyung-wha said on Wednesday that the U.S. and South Korea jointly made the decision to suspend combined military exercises scheduled for August, but would not confirm if her government was given advanced notice before U.S. President Trump announced his intention to cancel the drills, after he met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore on June 12.

“We have made it clear that this is a goodwill gesture to strengthen the dialogue momentum at this point, but they are not irreversible. They could quickly come back should we see the dialogue momentum losing speed or North Korea not living up to its denuclearization commitment,” said Foreign Minister Kang.

Diplomatic momentum

During a press briefing in Seoul, the foreign minister said she was in in close communication with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about the drills directly following the Singapore summit. And while the announcement canceling the exercises came suddenly, Kang said, South Korea was also considering this option to keep diplomatic momentum moving forward following the U.S.-North Korea summit where Kim reaffirmed his commitment to the “complete denuclearization” of North Korea.

The now cancelled Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercises normally held in August usually bring in 3,000 more American troops from abroad and involve 50,000 South Korean troops.

No decision has yet been made whether the other large-scale joint exercise held in the spring would be suspended as well.

At the Singapore summit Trump said he would cancel the “war games” that he said were both enormously expensive and “provocative,” as an act of good faith and in response to North Korea’s commitment to denuclearization, its continued suspension of nuclear and missile teats, and the recent closing of its nuclear testing site.

North Korea has long called for the end of these joint military exercises that it says are offensive “rehearsals for war.”

In the past U.S. officials refused to suspend the joint drills, that they defended as defensive in nature and legal under international law, for a pledge from North Korea to freeze its nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities that are prohibited by United Nations resolutions.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in looks at a TV broadcasting a news report on summit between the U.S. and North Korea during a cabinet meeting at the Presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, June 12, 2018.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in looks at a TV broadcasting a news report on summit between the U.S. and North Korea during a cabinet meeting at the Presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, June 12, 2018.

Kang also reiterated South Korea’s commitment to the U.S. alliance and said there has been no discussion about reducing the U.S. military presence in the country.

President Trump raised concerns over the future of the alliance when he said in Singapore that he would like to withdraw all or some of the over 28,000 troops in South Korea at some point in the future, as both a cost saving measure, and to reduce a perceived overextended U.S. military presence overseas.

No sanctions relief

On the tough United Nations sanctions against North Korea, Kang echoed Washington’s position that they remain in place until there is “concrete action on complete denuclearization,” but she said other undefined measures could be offered in response to Pyongyang’s continued progress.

“Now when we talk about action, there is a lot that can be done prior to lifting of the sanctions. There are good faith measures. There are confidence building measures and the suspension of the military exercises is one such good faith measure," said Kang.

However South Korean economic engagement with the North, she said, would be confined to research and development efforts only.

At the inter-Korean summit in April, Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in agreed to explore ways to promote economic cooperation and work to modernize inter-Korean railways and roads that could provide the South with land routes to China and Russia that would reach Europe.

Talks between the U.S. and North Korea are expected to be scheduled soon to expand Kim’s denuclearization pledge into a comprehensive plan that would detail the list of nuclear weapons, related facilities and ballistic missile systems to be eliminated, a dismantlement timeline, and verification process.

It also needs to be clearly defined the security guarantee and economic assistance North Korea would be provided for ending its nuclear program.

Kang expects this year to come up with an agreed upon peace declaration, but expects it will take a long time to develop a peace treaty to replace the armistice put in place at the end of the Korean War in 1953.

Kim met with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday during a two-day visit to Beijing, where they discussed the denuclearization agreement reached in Singapore.

After the summit North Korea state media reported that Trump agreed to a “step-by-step” process linking concessions to incremental progress, while U.S. officials insist that complete denuclearization must come before any relief is offered.

Inter-Korean talks are also continuing to ease tensions and increase cooperation. Military to military dialogue has been reestablished. The two Koreas also agreed this week to field unified teams at some events during the upcoming Asian Games scheduled for August in Indonesia.

Lee Yoon-jee in Seoul contributed to this report.