World / Politics

North Korea plays up apparent U.S. concessions, says Trump explicitly acceded to two of its top demands at summit

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

North Korea said Wednesday that U.S. President Donald Trump had told leader Kim Jong Un that he intended to halt joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises and ease crippling sanctions against Pyongyang, suggesting via state media that the American leader had explicitly acceded to two of the nuclear-armed nation’s top goals during an “epoch-making” summit a day earlier.

The North’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) quoted Kim as saying that if the United States were to take “genuine measures for building trust,” the North, too, could “continue to take additional good-will measures … commensurate with them.” The statement made clear that Pyongyang was expecting U.S. concessions before any moves by the North.

At a news conference Tuesday following the summit, Trump said that as long as talks with the North were continuing, the U.S. would not carry out the joint exercises — which he called “war games,” labeling them “provocative” and saying that the decision would save “a tremendous amount of money.”

The seemingly off-the-cuff remarks, which were not written into the joint document signed by Kim and Trump at their summit, stunned South Korea and even came as a surprise to the military organization most directly affected: U.S. Forces Korea.

That U.S. command said it had “received no updated guidance on the execution or cessation of training exercises,” including joint drills scheduled for August.

However, Wednesday’s report — the North’s first official account of the landmark summit in Singapore — suggested that Trump had directly conveyed the same commitment to Kim after the North Korean dictator had called on Trump to quickly address “irritating and hostile military actions,” a longtime grievance of the Kim regime.

It quoted Kim as saying during his talks with Trump that “in order to achieve peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula and realize its denuclearization, the two countries should commit themselves to refraining from antagonizing with each other … and take legal and institutional steps to guarantee it.” Trump, it added, had expressed his “understanding” of the stance and had conveyed “his intention to halt” the exercises.

North Korea has long criticized the joint drills as rehearsals for invasion and used them to justify the building-up of its nuclear weapons program.

News of the decision to halt the drills stoked concern in Japan, with Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera calling joint exercises and the U.S. military presence in South Korea “vital” to East Asian security.

“We would like to seek an understanding of this between Japan, the U.S. and South Korea,” Onodera was quoted as saying.

The defense chief added that Japan would continue its own joint exercises with the U.S. and would stick to plans to boost its defense against the ballistic missile threat from the North.

In Seoul, the presidential Blue House said that there is a need to seek measures that will help improve engagement with North Korea but that it is also necessary to confirm exactly what Trump had meant, media reports said. South Korean President Moon Jae-in was scheduled to chair a national security meeting early Thursday to discuss the outcome of Tuesday’s summit.

The KCNA report also said Trump would lift sanctions against the North — a claim that contradicted comments from the president Tuesday that the measures would “come off when we are sure that the nukes are no longer a factor.”

The brief mention did not include a timeline for the easing of sanctions, but Trump said earlier this month that he would no longer be using the term “maximum pressure” amid improving ties.

Highlighting the continued differences in the two countries’ views of the denuclearization process, the report also said that they had agreed on a “step-by-step” approach.

It said that Kim and Trump had “shared recognition to the effect that it is important to abide by the principle of step-by-step and simultaneous action in achieving peace, stability and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

If confirmed, the reported deal could be seen as a concession by Trump, since U.S. officials — and the president himself — had called for the North to take swift and clear disarmament measures before receiving any rewards.

In the vaguely worded U.S.-North Korean statement inked at the conclusion the summit meeting, the two sides only agreed to “work towards the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” while committing to a “lasting and stable peace.”

That statement, which Trump touted as “very comprehensive,” was scant on details, including specific actions and a timeline for the North relinquishing its nuclear arsenal.

And some experts have criticized proposals for a step-by-step approach as a mere ploy by Pyongyang to win concessions while delaying disarmament.

It also mirrored China’s “dual suspension” proposal that it unveiled last year. Beijing views the U.S. military presence in South Korea and Japan as a threat to its regional ambitions and has urged Washington to suspend the drills in return for the North’s halting of nuclear activities and missile tests.

China said Wednesday that the suspension of the exercises showed that Beijing’s proposal is practical and tenable.

In an editorial Tuesday, China’s state-run Global Times tabloid called the move “a big step forward.”

“With a cooling down of military activities, less U.S. military participation, and possibly an eventual U.S. troop withdrawal, the peninsula will completely walk out of the shadow of the Cold War,” it said. “If political process moves toward this direction on the peninsula, the whole region will benefit.”

Wednesday’s report also said that the summit would help “in making a radical switchover in the most hostile DPRK-U.S. relations” that had “lingered for the longest period on the earth.” DPRK is the abbreviation for the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The North has long blamed the surrounding tense security environment on Washington’s “hostile policy” toward it.

As part of the growing detente, the KCNA report also said that Kim had invited Trump to visit Pyongyang, an offer that the U.S. president had accepted.

Trump said Tuesday that he would invite Kim to the White House at an “appropriate time.”