Army Gen. Vincent Brooks met Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's plane in South Korea on Wednesday to get a briefing on what President Donald Trump meant by freezing joint military exercises and broaching the possibility of a withdrawal of U.S. forces.
Brooks, who is triple-hatted as commander of U.S. Forces Korea, the U.S.-South Korea Combined Forces Command, and the United Nations Command, was in need of "guidance," as his staff put it in a carefully worded statement Tuesday.
Brooks, who is expected to step down later this summer as commander in South Korea, was on the tarmac as Pompeo's plane landed at Osan Air Base, south of Seoul.
In remarks to reporters traveling with him, and at a later news conference, Pompeo said Trump had ordered a cessation of joint military exercises with Republic of Korea (ROK) forces, but added they would resume if North Korea fails to show good faith in upcoming denuclearization talks.
U.S. and South Korean forces recently concluded the annual Foal Eagle joint exercises and were preparing for the annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercises later this summer. Last year, Ulchi Freedom Guardian involved about 50,000 ROK and more than 17,000 U.S. troops.
In response to Trump's announcement Tuesday of a cessation of the exercises, U.S. Forces Korea put out a statement: "In coordination with our ROK [South Korean] partners, we will continue with our current military posture until we receive updated guidance from the Department of Defense and/or Indo-Pacific Command."
Pompeo was not asked, and did not comment, on how the freeze on joint exercises might affect the traditional "fight tonight" readiness of the 28,500 troops in U.S. Forces Korea.
The freeze on exercises was not included in the joint declaration by Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un after the Singapore summit, which ended Tuesday, but Pompeo said Trump discussed it in his closed meetings with Kim.
Trump "made very clear that the condition precedent for the exercises not to proceed was a productive, good-faith negotiations being ongoing and, at the point it's concluded that they're not, the president's commitment to not have those joint exercises take place will no longer be in effect," he said.
Pompeo said he expects talks with the North Koreans to resume next week. Trump will be providing overall direction, but "I will be the person who takes the role of driving this process forward," he said.
Pompeo also expressed confidence that significant progress could be made in dismantling North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs before Trump's first term ends.
At a news conference before leaving Singapore, Trump said, "Under the circumstances that we're negotiating a very comprehensive complete deal, I think it's inappropriate to have war games.
"It is something that [North Korea] very much appreciated," he said of the cessation. In addition, "the war games are very expensive."
Trump also speculated on the possibility of withdrawing U.S. troops from South Korea. "I want to get our soldiers out. I want to bring our soldiers back home," he said, "but that's not part of the equation right now. I hope it will be eventually."
Trump's freeze on the exercises was hailed in North Korea but caused concern in Seoul and in Japan. "For now, there still is a need to find out the exact meaning and intention of President Trump's remarks," said Kim Eui-kyeom, a spokesman for South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
However, he said, "We believe there is a need to consider various ways to further promote dialogue as long as serious discussions are being held between the United States and North Korea for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and establishment of peace."
Moon has called a meeting of his National Security Council for Thursday to discuss the implications of the freeze and "follow-up measures to implement the agreement reached at the summit," his spokesman said.
Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said Wednesday that the joint military exercises are "vital" to regional security. "We would like to seek an understanding of this between Japan, the U.S. and South Korea," he added.
In glowing coverage of Kim Jong Un's performance at the Singapore summit, North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency noted Trump's use of the term "provocative" in referring to the joint military exercises. North Korea has long called the exercises a "provocation" and practice for an invasion.
KCNA said Kim returned to Pyongyang aboard a plane provided by China to "enthusiastic and passionate" greetings for "steering the geopolitical situations surrounding the Korean Peninsula and opening a new chapter in relations between North Korea and the U.S. with energetic external activities."
Kim stressed the importance of Trump's move to suspend military exercises as a "bold decision on halting irritating and hostile military actions," KCNA said.
KCNA and Rodong Sinmun, the Workers Party newspaper, also suggested that the North would take a "step-by-step" approach on disarmament while expecting quick action on the lifting of sanctions.
"Kim Jong Un clarified the stand that if the U.S. side takes genuine measures for building trust in order to improve the [Democratic People's Republic of Korea]-U.S. relationship, the DPRK, too, can continue to take additional goodwill measures [in the] next stage commensurate with them," KCNA said.
China, North Korea's ally, called the Singapore summit a success and appeared to favor a go-slow approach on denuclearization.
"The results of the DPRK-U.S. summit are a correct and important step to achieve denuclearization," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a press briefing. "The issues concerning the Korean Peninsula are both unique and complex. It is hard to solve them overnight."
In a series of Tweets on Wednesday, Trump touted his success at the summit and declared that the nation was no longer under threat from nuclear attack by North Korea.
"Just landed -- a long trip, but everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea," he wrote.
"Before taking office people were assuming that we were going to War with North Korea," Trump said. "President Obama said that North Korea was our biggest and most dangerous problem. No longer -- sleep well tonight!"
He dismissed charges that he made concessions to Kim while getting little in return as "Fake News."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.