Trump's 'War Game' Stoppage Creates Confusion

U.S. soldiers at Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, South Korea.

U.S. soldiers at Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, South Korea.


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The White House said Tuesday that the U.S. military would continue to train with its South Korean counterparts and conduct military drills—but not large-scale, joint exercises—in a clarification of an offer by President

Donald Trump

to North Korea’s leader

Kim Jong Un.

The clarification, coming while Mr. Trump was still flying back from his summit with Mr. Kim in Singapore, was issued by a White House official after Vice President

Mike Pence

spent much of the day meeting with lawmakers who sought to understand what the president had promised.

Mr. Trump said at a Tuesday news conference in Singapore that for the duration of talks, he was stopping U.S. “war games,” which he said were “tremendously expensive” and provocative to North Korea. The offer wasn’t part of the joint statement between Messrs. Trump and Kim, and was criticized by some lawmakers for giving away too much. North Korean media early Wednesday played up Mr. Trump’s cancellation of the maneuvers.

Mr. Pence met in closed session with GOP lawmakers, and some later said he told them that “regular readiness training and training exchanges” would continue, according to a Twitter message by

Sen. Cory Gardner

(R., Colo.).

Across Washington at the Pentagon, defense officials scrambled to understand what Mr. Trump’s offer meant for officers and troops who have to implement the decision. The Pentagon was unable to provide details about the future of the longstanding military relationship between the U.S. and South Korea, which jointly guard one of the most heavily protected borders in the world.

Late Tuesday, a White House official clarified Mr. Pence’s comments, saying, “The VP was asked about force readiness and said that while the semiannual war games would cease—assuming parameters of the deal are met—regular readiness training would continue.”

“It may seem like a small distinction but is fairly significant,” the official said. “That’s where the confusion arose.”

The U.S. regularly operates with and trains with South Korean forces. The U.S. and South Korea even maintain a combined military division, assigned to defend against a prospective North Korean military attack. The coordination is considered unavoidable, given that American forces remain on the peninsula for the express purpose of preparing for war against North Korea.

“U.S.-South Korea exercises and the U.S. military presence in South Korea have an important role in the peace and security of East Asia,” Japanese Defense Minister

Itsunori Onodera

said Wednesday.

Apart from everyday coordination, the U.S. and South Korea also hold what Mr. Trump apparently meant by the “war games”—major joint exercises with names like “Foal Eagle,” “Max Thunder” and “Ulchi Freedom Guardian,” in which thousands of troops and aircraft come together, intended to practice reinforcing the roughly 28,500 U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula and to work effectively with their South Korean counterparts.

At an unprecedented summit in Singapore, Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un displayed friendliness and signed a document the U.S. president called “very comprehensive.” But the talks offered few specifics on plans to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.

“Ulchi Freedom Guardian,” which typically takes place in mid-August, is the next scheduled major joint exercise.

These large, combined exercises are essential to ensure the U.S. can rapidly deploy to South Korea in the event of war, defense officials have said. The Pentagon has long insisted that lower-level training wouldn’t suffice. But North Korea has argued these major exercises are provocative and should be canceled.

One Pentagon official said that the president’s announcement was unclear and that Mr. Trump still needed to decide if small-unit joint training would be affected. “Of course it will continue,” on some level, another defense official said of joint operations.

Defense Secretary

Jim Mattis

anticipated Mr. Trump’s announcement, according to his spokeswoman,

Dana White.

“The secretary and the president have been fully aligned,” Ms. White told reporters. “They have spoken about all these issues in advance.”

Ms. White declined to provide details on what Mr. Trump’s decision means for military exercises. Mr. Mattis wasn’t made available to comment.

Pentagon officials said further clarification will come as Mr. Trump provides details on the joint statement and his intentions.

—Peter Nicholas contributed to this article.

Write to Ben Kesling at benjamin.kesling@wsj.com and Michael R. Gordon at michael.gordon@wsj.com

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