Key lawmaker: Talks might suspend exercises in Korea, but US troops aren’t leaving

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said Wednesday that American troops must remain on the Korean Peninsula during negotiations with Kim Jong Un over his nuclear program, even if military exercises with South Korea are suspended during those talks.

Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, made those comments a day after President Donald Trump announced a halt to U.S.-South Korea military exercises following his historic summit in Singapore with Kim. Trump’s announcement left some lawmakers confused and appeared to have caught some U.S. and South Korean officials off guard.

“My fundamental belief is that we must maintain and strengthen our military position partly because I think that aids negotiations, partly if negotiations go sour, we are going to need it,” Thornberry told reporters about keeping U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula.

The congressman also said “the Pentagon is working through the details” of suspending the military exercises.

The United States has about 28,500 servicemembers in South Korea as part of the longstanding alliance between the two countries that fought together in the Korean War, which lasted from 1950 to 1953.

Trump has said he has no plans to decrease the number of U.S. troops in the South as part of security assurances for the North, but he left open the possibility that he will do so in the future.

“The president’s unconventional rhetoric has been very helpful in getting us to this place,” Thornberry said of Trump’s bluster before and after the summit. “He continues to have some unconventional rhetoric… I’m not as concerned about what is said, as what is done.”

It remained unclear Wednesday what joint exercises, if any, the United States would suspend with South Korea. Ending the exercises marked a major concession to Kim while Trump seemingly received nothing in return.

The move also would reverse decades of U.S. military posture in the region, with joint exercises at the heart of readiness efforts against the rogue regime’s artillery.

The drills infuriate Pyongyang, which considers them a rehearsal for an invasion of the North.

On Tuesday, Trump called the joint exercises “provocative.” Thornberry disagreed with the president.

“As a general proposition, it is good and important and necessary for the United States military to exercise, to train, to do ‘war games’ with ourselves and our allies — all around the world,” he said.

Washington and Seoul conduct two major sets of military exercises each year — Foal Eagle and Key Resolve in the spring and Ulchi Freedom Guardian in the fall. They also hold smaller training exercises throughout the year.

On Wednesday, summit watchers were still trying to make sense of Trump’s comments on which exercises could be impacted.

Thornberry said his understanding is the Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise, which is due to begin in August, could be suspended during ongoing talks with North Korea on denuclearization. But he said it would not be an indefinite move, and would not impact other sorts of lower-level exercises, training and readiness efforts, which would likely continue.

“You got to give these negotiations every opportunity to succeed,” Thornberry said. “So postponing – as long as the negotiations are being productive – these particular joint exercises that were planned for August… this is an opportunity to hold their feet to the fire and see if North Korea is serious about this. It’s also an incentive, so if they’re not serious, then it’s pretty easy to say those joint exercise that were scheduled for August are now going to happen in September or October or whatever.”

Thornberry reiterated earlier comments that while the talks might lead to a complete, permanent, verifiable end to North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, the key going forward will be North Korea’s actions, not their promises, in taking concrete, transparent steps toward that goal.

Thornberry has said it is essential to maintain economic sanctions, diplomatic pressure and continue strengthening military capability to defend the United States and its allies.

Following Tuesday’s summit, a U.S. Forces Korea spokeswoman said the command had received no updated guidance on the issue. Also that day, Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White issued a prepared statement that lauded the summit but did little to add clarity to the issue of whether the joint exercises would be halted.

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