Defense Secretary Jim Mattis defended the suspension of U.S.-South Korean war games as a tool to boost nuclear talks with the North, but he said Thursday that Washington has no plans to reduce the number of troops on the divided peninsula.
Mattis spoke during opening remarks before meeting his South Korean counterpart after traveling to Seoul following his first trip to China as Pentagon chief.
The allies agreed to cancel plans for a computer-simulated exercise known as Ulchi Freedom Guardian that had been scheduled for August, and to indefinitely suspend joint Marine drills, following through on a promise by President Donald Trump during his June 12 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Joint exercises have long infuriated the North, which considers them a rehearsal for an invasion.
Trump also criticized what he called “war games,” saying they’re “provocative” and “very expensive” during a press conference after the Singapore summit. The president also said he would like to eventually bring U.S. forces home.
The U.S. administration has insisted that it may resume the exercises if the North stops negotiating “in good faith” over its nuclear program.
Mattis defended the decision to suspend the exercises and reassured the South that the U.S. commitment to the longstanding alliance between the two countries “remains ironclad.”
“The U.S. will continue to use the full range of diplomatic and military capabilities to uphold this commitment,” Mattis told reporters. “This includes maintaining the current U.S. force levels on the Korean Peninsula.”
About 28,500 U.S. servicemembers are stationed in South Korea, which remains technically at war with the North after their 1950-53 conflict ended in an armistice instead of a peace treaty.
“The recent decision to suspend the Freedom Guardian exercise creates increased opportunity for our diplomats to negotiate, increasing the prospects for a peaceful solution on the Korean Peninsula,” Mattis said. “At the same time the U.S. and (South Korean) forces remain united, vigilant and ready to defend against any challenge.”
He also reiterated that the ultimate goal is the “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
Critics fear the cancellation of joint training could undermine readiness and deterrence efforts and argue the president got little in return for the concession. The summit statement includes a commitment to “complete denuclearization” but has no concrete measures or timelines.
Trump’s administration and supporters say the deal has created an important starting point and helped ease tensions that raised fears of a nuclear war last year. Trump has said punishing economic sanctions against the North will stay in place and he’s prepared to walk away if talks go sour.
South Korea’s Defense Minister Song Young-moo said the allies have a “precious opportunity” for peace.
“We’re standing at a turning point between the dark shadow of conflict and confrontation,” he said, insisting that the alliance will be stronger than ever.
“If North Korea maintains denuclearization and dialogue … we will continue to devise measures to support building mutual trust and the establishment of peace,” he said.
The defense secretary traveled later Thursday to Tokyo to discuss Japanese concerns about the threat posed by short-and-medium range missiles and other issues.
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