The U.S. military will move ahead with all future military exercises on the Korean Peninsula, Defense Secretary James N. Mattis said Tuesday, suggesting that America’s brief suspension of the drills as a show of “good faith” toward North Korea has not paid dividends in the struggling denuclearization talks with Pyongyang.
“We have no plans at this time to suspend any more exercises,” Mr. Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon, less than three months after President Trump labeled the U.S.-South Korean drills “provocative” and ordered them temporarily halted following his unprecedented face-to-face meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Mr. Mattis made the announcement at a rare press conference with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, during which the two also weighed in on a range of other topics, including efforts to stamp out the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and the U.S. role in battling Iran-backed rebels in Yemen.
With regard to Syria, they revealed that Washington is pressing Russia to stop what he described as a looming chemical weapons attack in the war zone — even as Moscow blames the West for plotting a chemical assault as a false flag pretext to launch airstrikes against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s forces.
But it was Mr. Mattis’ comments on North Korea that dominated the discussion at the Pentagon and quickly fueled a narrative of increasing administration frustration toward Pyongyang’s failure so far to show measurable results toward abandoning its nuclear weapons.
Mr. Mattis said the Pentagon has no intention of doing anything more to appease Mr. Kim. “We took the step to suspend several of our largest exercises as a good faith measure coming out of the Singapore summit,” Mr. Mattis told reporters, referring to the historic June 12 meeting between Mr. Trump and the North Korean leader.
While the defense secretary said the Pentagon “will work very closely” to reinforce Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s effort to make progress in behind-the-scenes talks with Pyongyang, he stressed that “at this time, there is no discussion about further suspensions.”
After the Singapore summit, the military made global headlines by halting the massive Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise in South Korea, which involves thousands of American troops each year. The suspension was designed to spur further good will with North Korea.
With Pyongyang having long characterized exercises as imperialist provocations by Washington, Mr. Trump suggested after his meeting with Mr. Kim that the drills were an impediment to the administration’s goal of getting North Korea to denuclearize.
During the months since, however, top administration officials have blasted Mr. Kim for taking no concrete action toward the goal. Mr. Trump said last week that he had ordered Mr. Pompeo to postpone a planned trip to Pyongyang because of the lack of progress.
“I have asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo not to go to North Korea, at this time, because I feel we are not making sufficient progress with respect to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” the president tweeted Friday.
State-controlled media in Pyongyang responded by accusing the U.S. of “double-dealing” and said American joint military drills that have been continuing with Japan amount to a “criminal plot to unleash a war” against North Korea.
The delicateness of the situation was further underscored Tuesday when several U.S. news outlets reported that North Korean leaders have since sent a letter to Mr. Pompeo warning that talks “may fall apart.”
Mr. Mattis said smaller-scale military drills in South Korea are continuing and larger planned exercises — including Ulchi-Freedom Guardian — are scheduled to go forward next year.
In addition to Ulchi-Freedom Guardian, the U.S. military holds two concurrent drills every spring: Foal Eagle and Key Resolve.
Foal Eagle involves more than 11,000 U.S. troops and nearly 300,000 South Korean forces, the Pentagon has said, and focuses on field training. Key Resolve involves about 12,000 troops and 10,000 South Koreans and is geared more toward computer-simulated efforts.
South Korean officials said they are holding on to hope that the U.S.-North Korean talks will proceed.
Defense Minister Song Young-moo met Tuesday with Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., U.S.-Pacific air forces commander, and other American military leaders and urged the U.S. not to give up its diplomatic effort.
“Minister Song and Commander Brown shared the view that close cooperation between the authorities of the two militaries is crucial to prop up diplomatic efforts for the denuclearization of the peninsula and establishment of peace,” the South Korean Defense Ministry said in a statement after the meeting.
On a separate front Tuesday, Mr. Mattis said the U.S. is trying to fend off a potential humanitarian disaster in Syria, where Mr. Assad’s forces are reported to be prepping for another chemical weapons attack against rebels in the city of Idlib.
“You have seen our administration act twice on the use of chemical weapons,” Mr. Mattis said. “I will assure you that the Department of State has been in active communication, recent active communication, with Russia to enlist them in preventing this.”
The Trump administration twice has ordered airstrikes in Syria after Mr. Assad’s forces launched horrific chemical attacks against rebel forces. Syria had vowed to give up its chemical weapons stockpile as part of a Russia-brokered deal in 2013, but it never fully followed through on that commitment.
Russian officials are already casting any chemical attack in Idlib as being perpetrated by the U.S. and its allies in the hopes of justifying more military strikes on Mr. Assad’s forces.
“A smear campaign will begin about the use of chemical weapons by the regime [of Mr. Assad] against its people, and that will be used as a pretext for a massive military strike against Syria. This scenario is so obvious that we are doing our utmost to prevent it from being implemented,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters Tuesday, according to the Tass news agency.
⦁ Carlo Muñoz contributed to this report.