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How Trump surprised the Pentagon and South Korea on live TV

After meeting with North Korea's Kim Jong-un, Trump told reporters that U.S.-South Korea military drills would stop. Of course, none of this is in writing.

President Donald Trump answers a final question while departing a press conference following his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un June 12, 2018 in Singapore. CREDIT: Win McNamee/Getty Images.
President Donald Trump answers a final question while departing a press conference following his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un June 12, 2018 in Singapore. CREDIT: Win McNamee/Getty Images.

When President Donald Trump appeared before a room full of reporters from all around the world on Tuesday morning in Singapore to talk about the agreement he’d just signed with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, no one really knew what he was about to say.

In a long, at times rambling press conference, a sleep-deprived president (having just flown in from a contentious G7 Summit in Canada) tried to answer reporters pressing him for details on the thread-bare, vaguely-worded joint letter he’d just signed.

He repeatedly mentioned things that were definitely not in the text of the agreement before he casually dropped that he had promised Kim that the United States and South Korea would stop carrying out their joint military exercises. It seems not even the Pentagon nor South Korea, the closest U.S. military ally in the region, knew he would make that commitment.

Seoul’s Blue House issued a statement soon after that statement saying, “At this moment, the meaning and intention of President Trump’s remarks requires more clear understanding.” It was followed up by another statement that made no mention of the military drills.

One unnamed official told Reuters he was convinced the president had misspoken. “I was shocked when he called the exercises ‘provocative,’ a very unlikely word to be used by a U.S. president.”

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The U.S. military forces in Korea (USFK) were also left scratching their heads over the statement, with U.S. Forces in Korea spokeswoman Lieutenant Colonel Jennifer Lovett issuing a statement saying it had not received any guidance to stop the exercises:

“USFK has received no updated guidance on execution or cessation of training exercises – to include this fall’s schedule Ulchi Freedom Guardian. In coordination with our (South Korean) partners, we will continue with our current military posture until we receive updated guidance from the Department of Defense (DoD) and/or Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM).”

A Pentagon spokesman couldn’t really explain the president’s statement either, saying that the DoD will keep working with the White House and will “provide additional information as it becomes available.”

What to make of this?

Mintaro Oba, a former State Department diplomat focusing on Koreas told ThinkProgress that by calling the military drills provocative and expensive, President Trump is essentially presenting North Korea’s view.

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“I think it was possible for the President to treat the suspension simply as a pragmatic, generous gesture we are making in response to North Korea suspending its nuclear and missile tests, to create the right atmosphere for diplomatic progress,” said Oba, answering questions via email.

“He shouldn’t have reinforced North Korea’s narrative that these legal exercises are somehow illegitimate,” added Oba, who feels that although South Korea would have preferred to be consulted on this decision, that in the long run, it will “welcome the suspension of exercises” as diplomatic progress.

Still, the president should have looped in South Korea and the Pentagon of his plan (if there was one) to shift strategies, said Oba, and Trump’s “on the fly” decision-making leaves “agencies, subordinates, and allies” racing to catch up.

As it stands, temporarily suspending the exercises won’t compromise South Korea’s security, as long as the United States keeps its 28,500 troops there.

“My biggest concern on this front was the prospect of the president making some commitment to reduce or eliminate U.S. forces in Korea, and he did not do so during this summit,” said Oba, who currently works as a speechwriter in Washington, D.C..

About those commitments….what are we to make of the fact that the most substantial commitments were put down in ink and included in the agreement?

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Although Oba said that sometimes sensitive aspects of an agreement can be “mutually understood rather than committed to writing,” this practice can be problematic because “such commitments are open to interpretation and hard to enforce without putting in writing.”

“Given the president’s record of exaggerating or misrepresenting things, all we can count on for sure right now is what is in the formal joint declaration. That, of course, is not much of substance,” said Oba.