BEIJING — The concessions President Trump floated during his historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are drawing growing criticism from members of Trump’s own party, who argue that Trump gave up too much during the talks.
“We have always believed that the use of force, or the threat of the use of force, is not a good thing,” Yu Dunhai, a counselor in China’s foreign ministry, told me during a roundtable with a small group of reporters here.
Yu said that the Singapore summit itself — and the fact that the US and North Korea have committed to holding ongoing talks — meant that Washington didn’t need to keep troops in South Korea much longer.
“If North Korea is no longer an issue, what’s the purpose to still have the troops there?” Yu asked. “If there is no terrorist, if there is no enemy, why do we need those troops?”
Beijing has long wanted the US to withdraw those forces, and it seems that Trump now feels the same way. “I want to get our soldiers out,” the president told reporters after his meeting with Kim Tuesday, though he cautioned that a withdrawal “wasn’t part of the equation right now.”
That wasn’t Trump’s only gift to China. Last November, Beijing proposed that Washington suspend its military drills with South Korea in exchange for North Korea agreeing to freeze its nuclear program. Trump flatly rejected the idea at the time. After meeting with Kim, however, the president effectively adopted the Chinese proposal.
“We will be stopping the war games, which will save us a tremendous amount of money,” Trump said Tuesday. “Plus, I think it’s very provocative.”
Yu said Trump was right to look for ways of addressing what Yu called “the legitimate security concerns of North Korea” over the military exercises and US troop presence. Left unsaid was the fact that American concessions on either issue will be a big win for China too.
Beijing won big at Trump’s North Korea summit
The pageantry of Trump’s meeting with Kim — from their handshake to the image of the two men and their teams literally sitting across from each other at the negotiating table — was front-page news on China’s state-run newspapers and the lead story on its state-run TV stations.
None of the articles I read noted that Trump’s description of the joint US-South Korean military exercises as “war games” echoed decades of North Korean propaganda. American and South Korean officials have long said the drills are purely defensive in nature, though Pyongyang has always argued that they’re really preparations for a future invasion of the North.
Trump’s talk of halting those drills and withdrawing the US troops who take part in them sparked immediate criticism from several Republicans.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (SC), one of the most hawkish Republican senators, told CBS This Morning that “the one thing I would object to violently is withdrawing our forces from South Korea.”
“China is trying to play President Trump through North Korea,” Graham added. “If we withdraw our forces and that’s part of the deal, I can’t support the deal. That will lead to more conflict, not less.”
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA), for her part, took issue with Trump’s apparent willingness to halt the drills.
“I don’t think that’s wise because we have done these exercises for years,” Ernst told reporters Tuesday. “I would just ask the president, why do we need to suspend them? They are legal.”
Trump’s comments also surprised officials at the Pentagon, who said they would continue to plan an upcoming joint exercise called Ulchi Freedom Guardian unless the president or others in the chain of command ordered them to postpone or cancel the drill.
Lt. Col. Jennifer Lovett, a US military spokesperson in South Korea, told the New York Times that US commanders had received “no updated guidance on execution or cessation of training exercises” and would press ahead until they heard differently.
Beijing sees Trump as the wisest of emperors
During our roundtable here, Yu returned again and again to the idea that North Korea’s longstanding concerns about being invaded or attacked by the US and South Korea — and that the two countries are actively plotting to overthrow the Kim regime — are legitimate fears that need to be addressed as part of the talks.
An experienced diplomat, Yu couched almost all of his comments in flattery for Trump and Kim. Their willingness to meet in person, Yu said, changed the equation after decades of enmity between Washington and Pyongyang.
Yu answered with a parable from China’s long history of imperial rule: “A very kind emperor may not be a very good one,” he said. “[Being] morally good may not be enough. Sometimes you need more to overcome the obstacles.”
The Chinese diplomat didn’t mention Trump’s name, but he didn’t have to. In Beijing’s eyes, Trump is handling North Korea exactly how officials like Yu have always hoped an American president would deal with the rogue nation. The question now is whether that approach will be good for the US as well.
The author of this article wrote it while on a trip to China sponsored by the China-United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF), a privately funded nonprofit organization based in Hong Kong that is dedicated to “facilitating open and constructive exchange among policy-makers, business leaders, academics, think-tanks, cultural figures, and educators from the United States and China.” Vox.com’s reporting, as always, is independent.