Analysts: Trump's surprise 'war games' statement was hasty

By Elizabeth Shim Contact the Author   |  June 13, 2018 at 1:42 PM
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June 13 (UPI) -- U.S. President Donald Trump's statement calling joint military drills with South Korea "very provocative" war games was hasty, as North Korea offered little in return at the leaders' Singapore summit, experts said Wednesday.

Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association in Washington, said in a phone briefing that Trump may have put Seoul on edge when he said during his post-summit press conference that the United States would be "stopping the war games."

"The surprise announcement that the United States would halt all joint military exercises with South Korea was premature, and it risks the United States giving up too much leverage too soon," Davenport said.

"It also surprised a key U.S. ally, South Korea. If the United States wants this process to be a success, Trump has to play his cards carefully and coordinate closely with key U.S. allies."

Tom Countryman, former assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation, said the statement from Trump raises concerns because success with North Korea hinges upon cooperative efforts with South Korea and Japan.

"This was a decision by the president that appeared to be somewhat spontaneous and that was not coordinated in advance with our most important ally in the region, the Republic of Korea," Countryman said.

"I believe the entire process with North Korea cannot succeed unless we stay in the closest possible coordination with our allies in South Korea and Japan. And that's of concern to me."

But the former State Department official also said Trump's statement, or any policy to suspend drills, is not carved in stone.

"The fact is these exercises could be resumed in the near future if there is no progress from the North Korean side on the commitment they have made," Countryman said. "So this is not a deal killer in any way. But I do hope the U.S. administration demonstrates it is concerned with allies as it is concerned for U.S. security."

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in South Korea to meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Thursday, to debrief Moon on the summit, but questions are likely to linger over Trump's statement.

Joint drills 'tremendously expensive'

After arriving in Washington on Wednesday morning, Trump continued to call for an end to the "war games" on Twitter.

"We save a fortune by not doing war games, as long as we are negotiating in good faith - which both sides are!" Trump tweeted.

The president has also complained about the costs of maintaining a military presence abroad and on Tuesday he said again he would like to bring U.S. soldiers home.

"The president has what I think is a misperception of the costs and the benefits of the United States of sustaining those deployments and sustaining those alliances," Countryman said, adding Trump's statements are not definitive or part of current policy.

"But if the United States is not in the closest possible coordination with our allies, South Korea and Japan, then I become much more pessimistic about the prospects for an agreement that lead to a lasting peace in Northeast Asia."

Trump has said the summit achieved the goal of national security and North Korea could be on the path to prosperity.

"Everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea," he tweeted on Wednesday after his arrival.

North Korea's low-cost concessions

Davenport, who monitors North Korea's weapons threats, said the president needs to stay cautious, given the low-cost concession North Korea has offered to the United States, including the dismantlement of the Punggye-ri nuclear site in May.

"We've seen these high-profile commitments from North Korea before," Davenport told UPI. "During negotiations in the six-party talks, North Korea invited reporters in to blow up parts of its nuclear reactor.

"These are politically significant commitments for the United States because they address key North Korean nuclear facilities. But blowing up the test site was a low-cost action, because in January Kim Jong Un declared the North Korean nuclear arsenal was complete."

Davenport also said blowing up the test tunnel was a low-cost, high-visibility move for Kim Jong Un that garnered him support and goodwill going into the summit.

On Tuesday in Singapore, Trump said Kim reaffirmed his "unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."

"This isn't another administration that never got it started and therefore never got it done," the president told reporters, adding Kim said he is "already destroying a major missile engine testing site."

"That's not in your signed document; we agreed to that after the agreement was signed," Trump said.

Davenport said a test stand dismantlement would be a greater concession than the demolition of Punggye-ri, which according to press reports, could still be used because not all tunnels were impacted.

"In terms of blowing up the [missile] test stand, that test stand has been used for North Korea's solid-fuel ballistic missile tests in the past," the analyst said. "If this site is fully dismantled, I do think that's a more significant commitment."

According to Davenport, North Korea's solid-fuel ballistic missiles pose more of a threat because those missiles are "more easily mobile and they're harder to track via satellite."

"North Korea has only tested its solid-fuel systems, medium-range solid fuel systems a few times, so it really has yet to master that capability," she said.

But the president's statements suggesting an early victory over this most urgent issue against the backdrop of ambiguous North Korean gestures are of concern, Countryman said.

"On the language Mr. Trump uses, there are two things that distress me the way our president speaks at times," the analyst told UPI, referring to Trump's characterization of the joint drills on the peninsula as "provocative."

"One is when he is willing to use the rhetoric and the specific vocabulary that is embraced by China or North Korea or Russia...I don't know how deliberately he does it but it sends a negative signal to the countries and the world that should be our closest allies.

"Even more distressing when he is unable to use the same warm and positive language with our closest longest-standing allies as he uses with the world's dictators," Countryman said.

Diplomatic work and effort in the next several days and weeks should be as intensive as preparations for the Tuesday summit, added Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.

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