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Trump Risks a Return to the Days of ‘Fire and Fury’ With North Korea

Trump never said he would stop all joint military exercises with North Korea. Or did he?
(By MikeTrukhachev/Shutterstock)

If you find yourself confused about what’s happening on the Korean Peninsula these days, you’re in good company. I direct a Korean studies program and even I’ve had a headache for a few days now.

Call it diplomatic whiplash, Korea-style.

In the space of just a few weeks, we have gone from President Donald J. Trump walking across the DMZ into North Korea to veiled threats that Pyongyang may scrap its self-imposed testing ban on nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

For those like myself, who truly believe that dialogue and compromise is the only path forward, the Kim regime’s latest threat is a step in the wrong direction. And while we should certainly be concerned, we also need to understand why that threat was made and why it’s justified according to the Kim regime.

If you parse the two statements that the North has released on the subject, it becomes clear that Pyongyang is once again upset over joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises, or what are being referred to as Alliance 19:2, set to take place between August 5 and 23. According to Pyongyang, the drills violate “the commitments made at the highest level,” meaning commitments made by Trump. In fact, the North claims that “the suspension of joint military exercises is what President Trump, commander-in-chief of the U.S., personally committed to at the DPRK-U.S. summit talks in Singapore under the eyes of the whole world and reaffirmed at the DPRK-U.S. summit meeting in Panmunjom, where our Foreign Minister and the U.S. Secretary of State were also present.”

Here’s where things get tricky. If the situation remains unaddressed, we could very well go back to the days of North Korean nuclear testing, ICBM launches, and President Trump calling out “little rocket man.” What sort of pledge did Trump make or not make to Kim on joint military exercises? And could that pledge somehow have been misinterpreted by the North or stated in a way that led Kim to make more of it than it was?

First, it is clear that if Trump pledged to stop all joint drills, then he made a massive concession that, over time, would have been very hard to keep. Considering that any military must train in order to keep up any sort of readiness (especially regarding complex joint operations), Trump essentially guaranteed that U.S. and South Korean forces would lose much of their edge to the North over time. While it’s one thing to have stealth bombers, the latest tanks, and cyber weapons, it’s another to know how to use them—and use them in wartime coordination with an ally.

What we do know is that during the Singapore summit last year, Trump stated that “we will be stopping the war games,” describing joint military exercises as expensive and provocative. But there was a catch: this so-called pledge seems to have been an open-ended agreement. Trump stated that it was discussed “under the circumstances that we’re negotiating,” and added, “I think it’s inappropriate to be having war games.” Also it should be noted that at the time of negotiation, two upcoming drills were not canceled until a week after Trump’s announcement, which appeared to catch South Korea and Japan (as well as the president’s own security team) by surprise.

From here, the story gets even more complicated. As Trump’s so-called promises were implemented, they were anything but a complete stop to all joint military exercises. According to a press statement released by the Department of Defense, former defense secretary James Mattis met with other high-level U.S. officials and decided on “indefinitely suspended select exercises.” The only exercises explicitly noted were the “Freedom Guardian” and two “Korean Marine Exchange Program” trainings that were scheduled to occur in the three months following the summit. The DoD’s statement also noted that any additional suspensions would depend on “good faith” negotiations with North Korea. And indeed, following the Hanoi summit, more exercises were suspended.

There does seem to be an obvious answer to all this: both sides have very different definitions and possible interpretations of what promises were made around joint military exercises and how to interpret the promises made by President Trump. And to make this even more complex, Trump’s pledges to end what he called “war games” are only a piece of the puzzle. The most damning evidence that North Korea can use to back up its statements barely involves war games at all.

In Singapore, Trump indicated that a suspension of military exercises would occur only so long as North Korea faithfully avoided provocative actions that might jeopardize negotiations—in his exact words: “unless we see [that] future negotiations are not going along as they should.” Complicating the matter is the fact that Trump stated that he would put military exercises “on hold while negotiations with Pyongyang were ongoing.” Here, one gets tangled trying to make guesses about what would constitute “not going as they should” or “provocative actions.” Also, what if the Pentagon thinks that the joint exercises that will occur soon, since they are scaled back so dramatically, are not “true” joint exercises? As you can see, definitions and interpretations matter.

What happens next is truly anyone’s guess. North Korea could respond to what they perceive as having been misled in many different ways. They could, as they did after the conclusion of recent military exercises several months back, begin testing short-range missiles (possibly something even more powerful) and then come back to the table—say, several months from now. How Trump might respond to that is impossible to predict.

Here’s the best solution to the problem: codify a modified freeze-for-freeze agreement now to ensure that working-level talks have a chance at success. Simply put, North Korea would agree on paper to stop testing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles in exchange for slimmed-down joint-military exercises with a certain scope, perhaps even sending military observers to non-classified parts of these drills to build trust. This could be expanded if the North were to agree to stop all missile testing, whereby America would need to grant an additional concession, say, for example, permitting the opening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex jointly operated by Seoul and Pyongyang.

No matter what happens, one thing is clear: we are reaching the limits of leader-to-leader talks, as one misinterpretation can lead to a crisis. Now is the time to ensure that any and all agreements made between Trump and Kim are codified. If not, there is no telling what might happen—even a return to the dark days of 2017. And nothing would be worse than that.

Harry J. Kazianis serves as a senior director at the Center for the National Interest, founded by President Richard M. Nixon. Follow him on Twitter @Grecianformula. He would like to acknowledge the work of Adriana Nazarko, a Center for the National Interest Korean Studies summer associate, who assisted in the preparation of this article.