The United States will suspend another military exercise with South Korea in effort to facilitate ongoing North Korean denuclearization talks, the Pentagon said Friday, as reports emerged that the next summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump would likely not take place until early next year.
The annual drill, known as Vigilant Ace, was suspended “to give the diplomatic process every opportunity to continue,” Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said Friday in an emailed statement.
Defense ministers from the United States and South Korea “are committed to modifying training exercises to ensure the readiness” of their forces, the statement said, adding that they had “pledged to maintain close coordination and evaluate future exercises.”
Pentagon chief Jim Mattis also consulted with Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya on the matter, with the two reaffirming their commitment to regional security, according to the statement.
In Washington, Reuters quoted a senior administration official as saying Friday that the second summit between Trump and Kim “is likely sometime after the fist of the year.”
The two sides have been engaged in talks on the leaders’ second meeting after their landmark June summit in Singapore, despite criticism that Pyongyang has not followed through on its commitment to denuclearize that it made at the summit.
At their June summit, the North Korean leader agreed to a vaguely worded 1½-page joint statement to “work towards the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” while Trump committed to “provide security guarantees” to the regime.
After the meeting’s conclusion, Trump also announced the surprise concession that the U.S. would suspend the joint military exercises with South Korea, calling the drills too expensive.
In August, he echoed this sentiment, saying that he saw “no reason at this time to be spending large amounts of money on joint U.S.-South Korea war games.” Trump, however, did say that he could restart them “instantly” if he chose, and that, if he did, the joint exercises would be “far bigger than ever before.”
Trump has repeatedly boasted about what he says are North Korean steps toward denuclearization, hailing the absence of missile or nuclear tests this year and the recent return of remains of U.S. service members killed in the 1950-53 Korean War as “incredible progress.”
The decision to halt the joint military drills comes some two months after Mattis said the U.S. had “no plans at this time to suspend any more exercises.”
The Vigilant Ace exercise had been scheduled to take place in December. Last year’s iteration of the drills involved 12,000 U.S. troops and some 230 military aircraft from the U.S. and South Korea, including 18 U.S. F-35 stealth fighters.
The move is the latest indication that the White House has scaled back its expectations of a quick resolution to the North Korean nuclear quandary.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Pyongyang earlier this month but came away from a day of meetings, including one with Kim, without a date for the second Trump-Kim summit or any news on when key denuclearization steps might take place.
The top U.S. diplomat, however, has continued to toe the line that the U.S. has made headway with the North.
Pompeo on Friday said he hopes to meet his North Korean counterpart soon to lay the groundwork for a “big step forward” on denuclearization during the next summit.
In an interview with Voice of America, Pompeo said Kim told him two weeks ago that he was committed to the promises he had made to Trump during their first summit.
“I’m very hopeful we’ll have senior leader meetings here in the next week and a half or so between myself and my counterpart to continue this discussion so that when the two of them get together there is real opportunity to make another big step forward on denuclearization,” he said. It was not clear who his counterpart might mean, but it could be North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, who he met at the United Nations General Assembly in New York last month.
Pompeo reiterated that Kim had made a “strategic decision” to give up his nuclear arsenal, but admitted that the for the North Korean leader, following through on that decision “is complex and will take time.”
Critics say Pyongyang is unlikely to relinquish its “treasured nuclear sword,” and has taken only symbolic steps toward denuclearization while also appealing to Trump’s ego as the sole person who can solve the issue.