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China welcomes suspension of joint exercises

U.S. President Donald Trump talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore June 12. / Reuters-Yonhap

South Korea caught off guard over Trump's remarks

By Lee Min-hyung

China is upbeat about U.S. President Donald Trump's surprise proposal to suspend joint military exercises with South Korea, which it believes will reduce tension on the Korean Peninsula.

"With a cooling down of military activities, reduced U.S. military participation, and possibly an eventual U.S. troop withdrawal (from South Korea), the Korean Peninsula will completely walk out of the shadow of the Cold War," the Global Times, an English-language Chinese newspaper, reported Tuesday night after Trump ended a landmark summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Beijing has supported the withdrawal of the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) and a possible suspension of the military exercises, as the country hopes to increase its grip on the peninsula and stand up to the U.S. and other Asian countries in trade and diplomacy.

China carried out a year-long economic retaliation against South Korea for the latter's decision in 2016 to deploy a U.S. anti-missile system here. China has since stepped up its complaints over the move, as Beijing views the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system a potential military threat to the country. China claimed that the anti-missiles system can monitor airborne objects in Chinese airspace.

But with Trump declaring an end to "war games" in South Korea on the sidelines of the June 12 summit in Singapore, China has been widely seen as the biggest winner of the Trump-Kim meeting.

The Chinese media outlet went on to support Trump's declaration, calling it a "big step forward for the peninsula."

"(If the North suspends its nuclear and missile threats), there will be no grounds for the U.S. and South Korea to continue large-scale military drills and for Washington to maintain its military presence in South Korea," it added.

As of now, it remains to be seen over whether Trump's declaration will become a reality, as South Korea's defense ministry is in a position that the exact meaning of his remarks should be checked.

Since taking office last year, Trump has called for the need to reduce the number of U.S. troops in South Korea, as he claimed that the South does not properly pay maintenance costs for the USFK.

During the post-summit press conference, Trump reiterated his willingness to completely withdraw the USFK from the Korean Peninsula sometime in the future in what some experts say is a strategy to grab the upper hand in the ongoing defense cost-sharing negotiations with South Korea. Seoul and Washington are in talks to renew the five-year defense cost-sharing agreement which expires at the end of this year.

Following the remarks from Trump, Japan expressed disappointment.

Minister of Defense Itsunori Onodera said Wednesday the U.S. troops in South Korea play a vital role for the security of East Asia. He said Tokyo will continue its joint military exercises with Washington in a move to tighten its defense readiness against possible missile threats from Pyongyang.

The Seoul-Washington military exercises consistently draw a backlash from North Korea, with Pyongyang threatening to stage military provocations against what it calls the "simulated war games against the North."

The Korea Central News Agency, the North's mouthpiece, reported Wednesday that Kim Jong-un demanded the suspension of the South Korea-U.S. joint exercises in the summit with Trump. It said Trump also expressed his willingness to stop the drills in consideration of the thawing relations between Washington and Pyongyang.