(Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump made a stunning concession to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Tuesday about halting military exercises, pulling a surprise at a summit that baffled allies, military officials and lawmakers from his own Republican Party.
At a news conference after the historic meeting with Kim in Singapore, Trump announced he would halt what he called “very provocative” and expensive regular military exercises that the United States stages with South Korea.
That was sure to rattle close allies South Korea and Japan. North Korea has long sought an end to the war games.
Trump and Kim promised in a joint statement to work toward the “denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula, and the United States promised its Cold War foe security guarantees. But they offered few specifics.
Noting past North Korean promises to denuclearize, many analysts cast doubt on how effective Trump had been at obtaining Washington’s pre-summit goal of getting North Korea to undertake complete, verifiable and irreversible steps to scrap a nuclear arsenal that is advanced enough to threaten the United States.
Critics in the United States said Trump had given away too much at a meeting that provided international standing to Kim. The North Korean leader is isolated, his country accused by rights groups of widespread human rights abuses and under U.N. sanctions for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
If implemented, the halting of the joint military exercises would be one of the most controversial moves to come from the summit. The drills help keep U.S. forces at a state of readiness in one of the world’s most tense flashpoints.
His announcement was a surprise even to President Moon Jae-in’s government in Seoul, which worked in recent months to help bring about the Trump-Kim summit.
U.S. Senator Cory Gardner told reporters that Vice President Mike Pence promised in a briefing for Republican senators that the Trump administration would “clarify what the president talked about” regarding joint military exercises.
“VP was very clear: regular readiness training and training exchanges will continue … war games will not,” Gardner later wrote on Twitter.
Pentagon officials were not immediately able to provide any details about Trump’s remarks about suspending drills, a step the U.S. military has long resisted.
A spokeswoman for U.S. military forces in Korea said it had not received any direction to cease joint military drills.
One South Korean official said he initially thought Trump had misspoken.
The Republican chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, said in a statement: “While I am glad the president and Kim Jong Un were able to meet, it is difficult to determine what of concrete nature has occurred.”
U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican, called North Korea a “brutal regime” and urged Trump to continue “maximum economic pressure” as negotiations advance.
However, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who said Trump called him from Air Force One, praised the president’s leadership at the summit.
“The President has given Kim Jong Un a way out that is good for him and the world. I hope Kim is smart enough to take it. Well done, Mr. President,” Graham said on Twitter.
U.S. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer faulted Trump’s agreement with Kim as short on details, saying the United States gave up “substantial leverage.”
Trump said China, North Korea’s main ally, would welcome the progress he and Kim had made.
Li Nan, senior researcher at Pangoal, a Beijing-based Chinese public policy think tank, said the meeting had only symbolic significance.
“There is no concrete detail on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and the provision of security guarantees by the United States,” Li said. “It is too early to call it a turning point in North Korea-U.S. relations.”