SEOUL—The United States and its Asian allies today worked to paper over any semblance of disagreement over President Donald Trump's concession to Kim Jong Un that the U.S. would halt military exercises with South Korea, with Trump's top diplomat insisting the president hadn't backed down from his firm line on North Korea's nukes.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, meeting with top South Korean and Japanese diplomats, put a more sober spin on several moves by Trump after his summit with Kim that had fuelled unease from Washington to Tokyo and Seoul.
He said Trump's curious claim that the North's nuclear threat was over was issued with “eyes wide open,” and brushed off a North Korean state-run media report suggesting Trump would grant concessions even before Pyongyang fully rids itself of nuclear weapons.
“We're going to get denuclearization," Pompeo said in the South Korean capital. "Only then will there be relief from the sanctions.”
On the joint U.S.-South Korea drills that Trump—after meeting Kim—said would be terminated, Pompeo added a key caveat that the president had failed to mention: if the mercurial North Korean leader stops negotiating in good faith, the “war games” will be back on.
The words of reassurance from Pompeo came as diplomacy took place in the uncertain aftermath of the summit Tuesday in Singapore, the first between a sitting American president and North Korea's leader in six decades of hostility.
In the village of Panmunjom along the North-South border, the rival Koreas today held the first high-level military talks since 2007, focused on reducing tensions across their heavily-fortified border.
Yet even as U.S. and South Korean officials sought to parlay the momentum from the dramatic summit into more progress on the nuclear issue, there were persistent questions about whether Trump had given away too much in return for too little.
Trump's announcement minutes after the summit's conclusion that he would halt the “provocative” joint military drills were a shock to South Korea and caught much of the U.S. military off guard, too.
Pyongyang long has sought an end to the exercises it considers rehearsals for an invasion, but U.S. treaty allies Japan and South Korea view them as critical elements of their own national security.
So Pompeo had some explaining to do as he travelled to Seoul to brief the allies on what transpired in Singapore.
In public, at least, South Korea's leader cast the summit's outcome as positive during a short meeting with Pompeo at the Blue House, South Korea's presidential palace.
President Moon Jae-in, an avowed supporter of engagement with North Korea, called it “a truly historic feat" that had "moved us from the era of hostility towards the era of dialogue, of peace and prosperity.”
Still, there were signs—as Pompeo met later with the top Japanese and South Korean diplomats—that concerns about the freeze had not been fully resolved.
South Korean Foreign minister Kang Kyung-wha, speaking in Korean, told reporters afterward that the military drills issue “was not discussed in depth.”
“This is a matter that military officials from South Korea and the United States will have to discuss further and co-ordinate,” Kang said.
The U.S. has stationed combat troops in South Korea since the end of the Korean War and has used them in a variety of drills.
The next scheduled major exercise, involving tens of thousands of troops, normally would be held in August.
Pompeo, the former CIA director, planned to fly to Beijing later today to update the Chinese government about the talks.
North Korea's economic lifeline, China has been praised by Trump for ramping up economic pressure on the North that the U.S. believes helped coax Kim Jong Un to the negotiating table.
The summit in Singapore did mark a reduction in tensions—a sea change from last fall, when North Korea was conducting nuclear and missile tests and Trump and Kim were trading threats and insults that stoked fears of war.
Kim now is promising to work toward a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.
North Korean state media heralded claims of a victorious meeting with the U.S. president. In Pyongyang, photos of Kim standing side-by-side with Trump on the world stage were splashed across newspapers.
Trump seemed equally ecstatic. As he landed yesterday in Washington following the summit, he declared on Twitter that America and the world can “sleep well tonight.”
“There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea,” Trump wrote, even though North Korea has yet to give up any of its fissile material—estimated by independent experts to be enough for between about a dozen and 60 nuclear bombs.