SINGAPORE (Reuters) – US President Donald Trump made a stunning concession to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Tuesday about halting military exercises, pulling a surprise at a summit that baffled allies, military officials and lawmakers from his own Republican Party.
At a news conference after the historic meeting with Kim in Singapore, Trump announced he would halt what he called “very provocative” and expensive regular military exercises that the US stages with South Korea.
That was sure to rattle close allies South Korea and Japan. North Korea has long sought an end to the war games.
Trump and Kim promised in a joint statement to work toward the “denuclearisation” of the Korean Peninsula, and the US promised its Cold War foe security guarantees. But they offered few specifics.
The summit, the first between a sitting US president and a North Korean leader, was in stark contrast to a flurry of North Korean nuclear and missile tests and angry exchanges of insults between Trump and Kim last year that fueled worries about war.
Highlighting the change in tone, North Korea’s state-run news agency reported early yesterday that Kim and Trump had accepted invitations to visit each other’s countries. No dates were disclosed.
Noting past North Korean promises to denuclearise, many analysts cast doubt on how effective Trump had been at obtaining Washington’s pre-summit goal of getting North Korea to undertake complete, verifiable and irreversible steps to scrap a nuclear arsenal that is advanced enough to threaten the US.
Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that Trump offered to lift economic sanctions on North Korea.
Critics in the US said Trump had given away too much at a meeting that provided international standing to Kim. The North Korean leader had been isolated, his country accused by rights groups of widespread human rights abuses and under UN sanctions for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
If implemented, the halting of the joint military exercises would be one of the most controversial moves to come from the summit.
His announcement was a surprise even to President Moon Jae-in’s government in Seoul, which worked in recent months to help bring about the Trump-Kim summit.
US Senator Cory Gardner told reporters that Vice-President Mike Pence promised in a briefing for Republican senators that the Trump administration would “clarify what the president talked about” regarding joint military exercises.
One South Korean official said he initially thought Trump had misspoken.
Current and former US defense officials expressed concern at the possibility the US would unilaterally halt military exercises without an explicit concession from North Korea.
The US-South Korean exercise calendar hits a high point every year with the Foal Eagle and Max Thunder drills were both wrapped up last month.
The joint statement made no mention of the sanctions on North Korea and there was no reference to formally ending the 1950-53 Korean War, which killed millions of people and ended in a truce.
But it said the two sides had agreed to recover the remains of prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action, so they could be repatriated. The Pentagon said on Tuesday that nearly 7,700 US military personnel are unaccounted for from the Korean war.