Trump-Kim Summit May Signal End of US-South Korea Military Exercises
By Dr. Stephen Schwalbe
Faculty Member, Public Administration, American Military University
President Trump met with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un in Singapore on June 12. This short, historic summit was the first time a North Korean leader has met with a sitting U.S. president.
The motivation for this historic meeting was the recent march toward war between the United States and North Korea. The meeting was fueled by increasing North Korean ballistic missile launches and nuclear weapon detonations.
North Korea often claims its nuclear weapon development program is a response to the large-scale joint military exercises involving the U.S. and South Korea. Often referred to as “war games,” these combined exercises – Ulchi Freedom Guardian and Foal Eagle – take place every year. They usually involve tens of thousands of U.S. military forces and hundreds of thousands of South Korean troops.
North Korea Believes US-South Korea Military Exercises Could Morph into Real-World Attack
North Korean leaders believe any of these military exercises could morph into a real-world attack against their country and have reacted strongly every time such exercises were being conducted.
The tangible result of this unprecedented meeting was a document signed by Trump and Kim that essentially commits both sides to very little, except to continue discussing denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. On the other hand, a lot has already been accomplished toward creating peace on the Peninsula and in the region.
Prior to this historic summit, North Korea destroyed three of its expensive and difficult to recreate operational nuclear weapons testing tunnels. During the summit, Kim also promised to destroy one of North Korea’s operational ballistic missile launch sites.
Prior to the summit, Kim met several times with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. They agreed to support a joint Korean team at the Winter Olympics in South Korea earlier this year. This joint team was a significant symbolic message for the world.
The two leaders even discussed replacing the Korean War armistice with a peace treaty. Trump then offered to meet Kim, an unprecedented move by a sitting U.S. president.
Until this week’s summit, that was all the United States offered in exchange for what Kim had already done and what he promised to do. It appeared, therefore, that the U.S. was receiving a lot for relatively little.
Trump Declared US and South Korea Would No Longer Conduct War Games
After their meeting, Trump declared that the U.S. and South Korea would no longer conduct the “war games” that the Kim regime protested so vigorously over the years. Trump called the exercises “provocative” and “expensive.”
Trump did not coordinate this announcement with either the South Korean leadership or his own Department of Defense. Both were caught off guard. However, his move more than makes up for the sacrifices both sides will need to make if there is to be real progress between the two nations.
What is left on the table are North Korea’s nuclear weapons and the West’s economic sanctions against Pyongyang. Those sanctions virtually isolate North Korea from the rest of the world with the exception of China and Russia.
These issues will be negotiated in the future. President Trump is anxious for Kim to destroy his nuclear weapons stockpile in exchange for U.S. economic investments in North Korea, particularly in regard to the new condos that could be developed along its pristine beaches.
It remains unlikely that Kim will accede to Trump’s desire to destroy North Korea’s nuclear weapons any time soon; nor is it likely that Kim will give independent inspectors access to its nuclear weapon research and development, and production facilities. At this point, Kim may be satisfied with ending the combined major military exercises because that is what he really wanted in the first place.
The bottom line is that it is no longer the case that everyone is worried about a possible nuclear war beginning on the Korean Peninsula. That is reason enough to cautiously celebrate.
About the Author
Dr. Stephen Schwalbe is an associate professor at American Military University. He is also an adjunct professor at Columbia College. Stephen served as a Defense Attache in South Korea from 1995-97.