TOKYO — President Donald Trump on Saturday appeared to side with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in renewing his objections to joint military exercises with South Korea, calling such drills “ridiculous and expensive” at a time when Pyongyang has ramped up tests of short-range missiles.
In a pair of morning tweets from his resort in Bedminster, N.J., where he arrived late Friday for a 10-day vacation, Trump said Kim objected to the exercises in a letter and suggested the missile tests would end once the drills, which began this week, are finished.
“It was a long letter, much of it complaining about the ridiculous and expensive exercises,” Trump wrote, asserting that the letter amounted to “a small apology for testing the short range missiles.”
Trump also said Kim suggested that negotiations over its nuclear weapons program, which have been dormant since a second summit in Hanoi broke off without an agreement in February, could resume after the joint exercises conclude.
“I look forward to seeing Kim Jong Un in the not too distant future!” Trump added. “A nuclear free North Korea will lead to one of the most successful countries in the world!”
Pyongyang has repeatedly insisted the tests are a reaction to joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises, as well as Seoul’s import of F-35A stealth fighters from the U.S. Trump appeared to accept that explanation. He offered no rebuttal to the idea that the exercises were not worthwhile, even though his own military say they are vital.
This week, Trump repeated a complaint that South Korea had been paying “very little” for the presence of U.S. troops in its country and said it had now agreed to pay “substantially more.” That has horrified many experts who say the alliance brings tremendous benefits in terms of U.S. security.
“Sends the wrong message to our allies. Security at a price? That’s not who we are and plays into Kim’s (China’s) hands,” tweeted James Zimmerman, a leading U.S. lawyer and business leader based in Beijing.
“The comment alone is potentially destabilizing and sounds like a mob shakedown. Seoul’s security is very much a global security issue, at whatever the cost,” Zimmerman added.
Trump has used the exercises as a carrot in his efforts to get North Korea to agree to nuclear disarmament. After his first summit with Kim in Singapore in June 2018, Trump called off that summer’s exercises in a show of good faith to facilitate the nuclear negotiations. But after the summit in Hanoi ended with no progress, the exercises were revived.
Experts said the U.S.-South Korea drills this month, called “Dong Maeng,” are likely a smaller version of the exercises, which had included thousands of troops.
Trump has raised concerns about the costs of U.S. military relations with South Korea, Japan and other allies, but his renewed objections come amid increasing hostilities from Pyongyang. Though Trump met with Kim at the Korean demilitarized zone in June, the North has failed to respond affirmatively to the administration’s attempts to restart working-level talks.
Instead, the North has launched four short-range missile tests over the past two weeks, raising alarms in Seoul and Tokyo, which are locked in their own bitter trade dispute that has essentially frozen diplomatic relations between them. South Korea has threatened to end an intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan.
But Trump has been eager to frame his diplomacy with Kim as a success ahead of the 2020 election. The president maintained that the short-range tests, while a potential violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, do not cross a verbal agreement he said Kim made in Singapore to stop testing long-range ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons as long as the negotiations were continuing.
Trump has repeatedly insisted North Korea has not been testing ballistic missiles, although his own officials — as well as key European and Asian allies — have insisted that some of the missiles have indeed been ballistic. Such launches would contravene U.N. Security Council resolutions.
North Korea is generally recognized as among the world’s most repressive nations, operating secretive prison camps where perceived opponents of the regime face torture, starvation rations and forced labor.
Earlier this month, Trump also vouched for Kim as a “friend” who has a “great and beautiful vision for his country.”