Early last year, China suggested a way to defuse the escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula: North Korea would stop its nuclear and missile tests, while the US and South Korea would stop their joint military drills. In the following months, the Trump administration repeatedly dismissed the ”dual suspension” or “freeze for freeze” proposal, which Russia also backed. Indeed Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, called the idea “insulting” in September, for equating defensive measures with the belligerence of “a rogue regime.”
Yet now the idea has become reality—just a week after Trump shocked many at the close of the June 12 US-North Korea summit by saying the US and South Korea would cease their “war games,” but without offering details.
The Pentagon said Monday that it was no longer planning for annual war games slated for August. South Korea’s defense ministry, meanwhile, announced Tuesday (June 19) that the drill, known as the Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise, has been canceled. Given that the move followed North Korea saying in April it would suspend its nuclear and missile tests, it appears that China’s “insulting” proposal is now being followed by all sides.
How did this happen?
Earlier this year, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un seemed to have accepted that joint exercises—which take place several times a year—would continue. In March, South Korea’s national security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, visiting the White House after meeting with Kim in Pyongyang, said Kim understood such drills must go on.
That seemed to change after Kim conferred with Chinese president Xi Jinping in early May. Less than two weeks later, Pyongyang canceled a high-level meeting between South and North Korean officials, blaming the “Max Thunder” joint air combat drills then being conducted by the US and South Korea. It warned the Trump-Kim summit could be in jeopardy, too.
Despite the drama, the Trump-Kim summit did happen—and Trump made his startling announcement, even calling the exercises “provocative,” using a word deployed by Pyongyang and Beijing.
It was a stark reversal. Last November, US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said, ”A lot of countries like to talk about this idea of a freeze for freeze, but that’s just not going to work… There’s no moral equivalency between the actions on the part [of North Korea] and our legal, justified activities.”
China, of course, is looking after its own interests. It wants to prevent the chaos at its doorstep that US military action against North Korea would likely bring, whether through escalating conflict, a refugee crisis, or both. It doesn’t particularly want a nuclear-armed neighbor, so it’s all for encouraging North Korea’s denuclearization. Most of all it wants to gradually reduce US influence in the region; a cessation of the annual drills helps.
Even better for China would be the US reducing troop levels on the Korean Peninsula. In May, ahead of his summit with Kim, Trump ordered the Pentagon to prepare options for doing just that.
“I want to get our soldiers out. I want to bring our soldiers back home,” Trump said after the June 12 summit. “But that’s not part of the equation right now. I hope it will be eventually.”
China, not surprisingly, praised the Trump-Kim summit after it took place.
“Today, that the two countries’ highest leaders can sit together and have equal talks, has important and positive meaning, and is creating a new history,” foreign minister Wang Yi told reporters in Beijing. “China of course supports it.”
He added, “I don’t think anybody should doubt the unique and important role China plays in this process.”
Few do. Indeed, Kim is visiting China today to brief Xi on the summit—his third visit in three months.