Donald Trump is hedging his bets on North Korea. Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
Donald Trump is hedging his bets on North Korea. Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

One day after United States Defense Secretary James Mattis hinted at a possible return to suspended military drills in South Korea, US President Donald Trump hailed his relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and said there was “no reason” to resume the exercises.

Trump released a statement on Twitter, which read, in part, “…the President believes that his relationship with Kim Jong Un is a very good and warm one, and there is no reason at this time to be spending large amounts of money on joint US-South Korea war games.”

Military drills as diplomatic tools

However, Trump’s soft talk was followed by a big stick. “Besides, the President can instantly start the joint exercises again with South Korea, and Japan, if he so chooses,” the tweeted statement continued. “If he does, they will be far bigger than ever before.”

After breaking fresh diplomatic ground by summiting with Kim in Singapore in June, Trump announced an indefinite halt to joint South Korea-US exercises on the peninsula. The move was seen as a concession to Kim, whose state characterizes the annual drills, mainly held every spring and summer, as preparations for an invasion.

Trump, however, said his decision was based not only on North Korean concerns, but also on economic grounds.

According to reports in the South Korean media, the next major drill, “Vigilant Ace,” will be held in December. The drill is an aerial one, involving hundreds of aircraft – possibly including US stealth bombers. However, Seoul’s Defense Ministry told reporters that there has been  no decision yet made on the status of the exercise.

And even  senior military leaders admit that the exercises are not purely military in nature – they also offer diplomatic leverage. Drills “can be used to increase pressure or decrease pressure,” said General Vincent Brooks, the commander of US troops in South Korea, in a briefing to reporters last week. “We are an agile instrument in the hands of our political leaders.”

Pyongyang cancellations, visits

Trump’s tweet, sent on Wednesday, US time, was the latest development in a back-and-forth series of diplomatic maneuvers related to the progress – or rather, lack of progress – of North Korean denuclearization.

It follows Trump’s decision, last Friday, not to deploy US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Pyongyang for negotiations. Trump said a lack of progress on denuclearization was the reason for his decision. However US media, citing un-named officials, said the real reason for the cancellation may have been the combative nature of a letter allegedly sent to Pompeo by his North Korean counterpart, Kim Yong Chol.

North Korea, which has halted missile and nuclear tests, blown up parts of its nuclear test site and dismantled parts of a rocket-engine test side, has expressed frustration that the US is making no concessions in return.

It seeks an easing of sanctions – which the US side say can happen only after, not during, denuclearization. Moreover, state media has been pressing for a peace treaty to replace the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953.

The US side has been silent on that issue, though South Korea, too, has hinted that a peace treaty could be signed by the end of this year.

Trump continues to heap pressure on China – North Korea’s closest ally and biggest benefactor – which he initiated a tariff war against. Alleging China was providing North Korea with “considerable aid, including money, fuel, fertilizer and various other commodities,” Trump’s tweet added: “This is not helpful!”

Chinese media continue to speculate about a rumored visit by President Xi Jinping to Pyongyang next month on North Korea’s national foundation day, September 9. The day is expected to be marked by a military parade. Chinese media also speculated that People’s Liberation Army troops might join the parade.

Such a show of camaraderie would send a significant signal to Washington.

Even so, one expert opined that China’s aim in North Korea was not necessarily to confound the US or even to support Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, but to preserve its influence on the strategic peninsula.

“I totally disagree that China is trying to goad North Korea into not denuclearizing,” said Go Myong-hyun of Seoul-based think tank the Asan Institute. “I think Trump is trying to find an excuse or somebody to blame: domestically, it is Obama or Hilary; in Korea, it is China.”

And Xi may not be the only high-profile visitor to Pyongyang next month. South Korean President Moon Jae-in is also scheduled to visit Pyongyang for a summit with Kim in September, albeit, most likely later in the month. Officials have stated Moon’s intention of playing an intermediary role between North Korea and the United States.

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