President Trump said Wednesday that he has no intention — despite comments to the contrary this week by Defense Secretary James N. Mattis — to restart U.S.-South Korea military drills that he halted in a show of “good faith” to Pyongyang following his June summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
“The President believes that his relationship with Kim Jong Un is a very good and warm one, and there is no reason at this time to spending large amounts of money on joint U.S.-South Korea war games,” Mr. Trump said on Twitter in remarks that he characterized as an official statement from the White House.
At the same time, however, Mr. Trump said he “can instantly start the joint exercises again with South Korea, and Japan, if he so chooses,” and that “if he does, they will be far bigger than ever before.”
The tweet came amid rising speculation in Washington over status of Mr. Trump’s North Korea policy, since Mr. Mr. Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon Tuesday that the U.S. military plans to restart joint U.S.-South Korea drills that North Korea has long criticized as an imperialist aggression by Washington.
While the issue of the military exercises hung in the backdrop, Mr. Trump separately sought to focus attention toward his frustration with China, which his administration has been urging for more than a year to use its influence as North Korea’s closest ally to get Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons.
The president roundly blamed China for foiling his efforts to reach a diplomatic breakthrough with toward denuclearization, asserting that Beijing is vindictively using its influence over Pyongyang to gain leverage in ongoing U.S.-China trade negotiations.
“North Korea is under tremendous pressure from China because of our major trade disputes with the Chinese government,” Mr. Trump tweeted, suggesting Chinese frustration with the disputes has driven Beijing to convince Pyongyang not to cooperate with Washington.
“China is providing North Korea with considerable aid, including money, fuel, fertilizer and various other commodities,” the president added. “This is not helpful!”
But Mr. Trump also went on to tweet that his “relationship and bond” with China’s president remains “very strong.”
“As for the U.S.–China trade disputes, and other…differences, they will be resolved in time by President Trump and China’s great President Xi Jinping,” Mr. Trump said.
The barrage of comments came after South Korea had downplayed Mr. Mattis’ announcement this week that the Pentagon plans to restart military exercises on the Korean peninsula amid concern that a recent halt of the drills had failed to inspire Pyongyang to make any progress toward denuclearizing.
The South Korean president’s office said Wednesday that U.S. officials haven’t yet engaged Seoul on whether or not to resume the exercises, according to the Yonhap News Agency in Seoul.
Mr. Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday that the U.S. military has “no plans at this time to suspend any more exercises.”
Mr. Trump had made international headlines in June when he agreed that U.S.-South Korean drills, held at various times throughout the year on an annual basis, are “provocative” and ordered them suspended following his historic summit with Mr. Kim in Singapore.
“We took the step to suspend several of our largest exercises as a good faith measure coming out of the Singapore summit,” Mr. Mattis said Tuesday in remarks that caused a stir in U.S. national security circles.
The Pentagon issued follow-up statement attributed to Mr. Mattis on Wednesday that suggested internal discussions are actually ongoing on the matter. “No decisions have been made about suspending any future exercises,” it said.
Some national security experts read the comments as the latest sign of difficulty in Trump administration’s ongoing pursuit of a breakthrough with North Korea.
“Whether Mattis’ announcement was meant as a signal, negotiating tactic, or merely a statement of fact is unclear. But it will be seen as another indication that the denuclearization talks are not going as smoothly as President Trump originally depicted,” said Bruce Klingner, a former CIA Korea deputy division chief.
Mr. Klingner, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, added that the Trump administration has not been exacting the level of so-called “maximum pressure” on North Korea that some of the president’s advisors have said would be essential to get Pyongyang to denuclearize.
“The U.S. has been refraining from maximum pressure,” Mr. Klingner told The Washington Times. “President Trump announced in early June that he was not sanctioning 300 North Korean entities — a number equivalent to all North Korean entities sanctioned in 9.5 years of the Trump and Obama Administrations. Since then, the U.S. has sanctioned a small number of primarily non-North Korean entities.”
Mr. Trump’s tweets Wednesday evening were a break from comments the president made last week when he revealed that he had ordered Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to postpone a planned trip to Pyongyang because of the lack of progress in talks.
Several news outlets have since reported that North Korean leaders have sent a letter to Mr. Pompeo warning that talks “may fall apart.”