The U.S. and South Korean governments have announced the suspension of the Ulchi Freedom Guardian joint military drill that was slated to take place in August. The United States and South Korea conduct three major military drills per year. The canceled drill focuses on protecting South Korea from invasion from the North in the event of the outbreak of full-scale war.
Prior to the announcement, a joint statement that U.S. President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un of the Workers' Party of Korea released following their summit in Singapore recognized that "mutual confidence building can promote the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula." Suspension of the military drill is understandable if it improves relations between the two countries, which had stood opposed to each other many years after the Korean War, and contributes to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
The agreement between the United States and North Korea does not take the approach of first requiring denuclearization, but starts by fermenting trust. In the early 1990s, the U.S. and South Korean governments similarly suspended military exercises in a push for denuclearization of North Korea. The question of whether or not the drills are held sends a diplomatic message, and we hope that North Korea will adopt a reasonable response.
Nevertheless, there remain concerns about the approach taken by President Trump. Describing the drills as "war games," Trump stated that they were "very expensive" and also indicated that they were inappropriate, describing them as "very provocative." Trump also expressed his willingness to remove U.S. military troops from South Korea in the future. He rejected immediate withdrawal, as might have been expected. Still this appeared to provide a glimpse of his true intentions of prioritizing a profit-and-loss viewpoint over security issues.
In deciding to halt the military drill, there were apparently no prior consultations with South Korea -- one of the main parties involved -- which creates a sense of uneasiness.
The United States is prepared to resume drills depending on how North Korea acts, and so we can say its latest move is no more than a one-off suspension. Still, there remain apprehensions that suspension could lead to a reduction in deterrent force.
Japan has, on the surface, expressed understanding for suspension of the drills. But some Japanese government officials are cautious about the move, fearing that it might affect the Japan-U.S. alliance.
Chairman Kim has visited China three times in the space of three months, and is unfurling diplomacy balanced between the U.S. and China. Some have said that North Korea is in an advantageous position in the "power game" between world powers, and we can thus expect twists and turns until the complete denuclearization of North Korea is achieved.
The Cold War structure that remains in place in Northeast Asia has started to become more fluid. Under such circumstances, a lack of communication between allies could invite misunderstanding and distrust. Discussion between the countries involved is indispensable.