Donald Trump made a stunning concession to Kim Jong Un on Tuesday about halting military exercises, pulling a surprise after the summit between the U.S. and North Korean leaders that baffled allies, military officials and lawmakers from his own Republican Party.
At a news conference after the meeting with Kim in Singapore, Trump announced he would halt what he called "very provocative" and expensive regular military exercises that the U.S. holds 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.
The two leaders promised in a joint statement after their meeting to work toward the "denuclearisation" of the Korean Peninsula, and the U.S. promised its former Cold War foe security guarantees, but they offered few specifics.
The summit, the first between a sitting U.S. 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 fuelled worries about war.
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 U.S.
Critics at home said the U.S. president had given away too much at a meeting that gave international standing to Kim. The North Korean leader is deeply isolated, his country accused by rights groups of widespread human rights abuses and under U.N. sanctions for its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.
I was shocked when he called the exercises 'provocative' — a very unlikely word to be used by a U.S. presidentSouth Korean government official
If implemented, the halting of the joint military exercises would be one of the most controversial moves to come from the summit. The drills help keep U.S. forces in a state of readiness, in one of the world's most tense flashpoints.
"We will be stopping the war games, which will save us a tremendous amount of money, unless and until we see the future negotiation is not going along like it should. But we'll be saving a tremendous amount of money, plus I think it's very provocative," Trump said.
His announcement was a surprise even to President Moon Jae-in's government in Seoul, South Korea, which worked in recent months to help bring about the Trump-Kim summit.
South Korea's presidential Blue House said it needed "to find out the precise meaning or intentions" of Trump's statement, while adding that it was willing to "explore various measures to help the talks move forward more smoothly".
Fact-checking @realDonaldTrump about North Korea, trade after the #SingaporeSummithttps://t.co/rUSOKm4POV#SingaporeSummit via @PolitiFact's @manuelatobiasm@loujacobson with help from @luciageng@johnkruzel@JonZGreenberg— Katie Sanders (@KatieLSanders) June 12, 2018
Pentagon officials were not immediately able to provide any details about Trump's remarks about suspending drills, something that the U.S. military has long resisted.
A spokesperson for U.S. military forces in Korea said they had not received any direction to cease joint military drills.
"USFK has received no updated guidance on execution or cessation of training exercises — to include this [autumn]'s scheduled Ulchi Freedom Guardian," U.S. Forces in Korea spokesperson Lieutenant-Colonel Jennifer Lovett said in a statement.
One South Korean official said he initially thought Trump had misspoken.
"I was shocked when he called the exercises 'provocative' — a very unlikely word to be used by a U.S. president," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because it was a politically sensitive issue.
Current and former U.S. defence officials expressed concern at the possibility that the U.S. would unilaterally halt military exercises without an explicit concession from North Korea that lowers the threat from Pyongyang.
The U.S.-South Korean exercise calendar hits a high point every year with the Foal Eagle and Max Thunder drills, which both wrapped up last month.
'Difficult to determine'
The Republican chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, said it was difficult to assess what had happened at the summit.
"While I am glad the president and Kim Jong Un were able to meet, it is difficult to determine what of concrete nature has occurred," Corker said in a statement.
Speaking about the military exercises, Corker told Reuters: "I don't know if that's an agreement or an ad hoc statement that was made. It wasn't in the agreement, and sometimes things are said and walked back after talking to people at the Pentagon and other places."
Trump contradicts U.S. military stance on Korea war gameshttps://t.co/4CS8vcJDII— The Morning Call (@mcall) June 12, 2018
U.S. House of Representatives speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican, called North Korea a "brutal regime" and urged Trump to continue "maximum economic pressure" as negotiations advance.
U.S. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer faulted Trump's agreement with Kim as short on details, saying the U.S. gave up "substantial leverage".
World stock markets were little changed on Tuesday, while the U.S. dollar fell slightly against an index of major currencies, as investors brushed aside the summit.
The two leaders smiled and shook hands at their meeting at the Capella Hotel on Singapore's resort island of Sentosa, and Trump spoke in warm terms of Kim at his news conference afterward.
Just a few months ago, Kim was an international pariah accused of ordering the killing of his uncle, a half-brother and hundreds of officials suspected of disloyalty. Tens of thousands of North Koreans are imprisoned in labour camps.
South Korea Blindsided By Trump War Games Agreement https://t.co/x8THFLXrYo— Frank T Torres (@frank_torres2) June 12, 2018
The leaders' joint statement did not refer to human rights, although Trump said he had raised the issue with Kim, and he believed the North Korean leader wanted to "do the right thing".
Trump said he expected the denuclearisation process to start "very, very quickly" and it would be verified by "having a lot of people in North Korea".
He said Kim had announced that North Korea was destroying a major missile engine-testing site, but sanctions on North Korea would stay in place for now.
It was unclear if negotiations would lead to denuclearisation, or end with broken promises, as happened in the past, said Anthony Ruggiero, senior fellow at Washington's Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank.
"This looks like a restatement of where we left negotiations more than 10 years ago and not a major step forward," he said.
Reporting by Steve Holland, Soyoung Kim, Jack Kim