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Trump’s promise of end to U.S.-South Korea ‘war games’ creates confusion in Congress

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) told reporters that, contrary to the president's previous statement, joint military exercises with South Korea will continue. (Video: The Washington Post)

One of President Trump’s more controversial pledges at his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — that the United States would halt joint military exercises on the Korean Peninsula — touched off confusion on Capitol Hill, with an influential GOP senator asserting the exercises would nonetheless continue.

According to Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), that was the message delivered by Vice President Pence to Senate Republicans during a private lunch earlier Tuesday — although that was immediately disputed by Pence’s office. 

“I think what the vice president said today — and we’ll continue to clarify what the president had talked about — exercises will continue with South Korea,” Gardner said during a news conference with other GOP leaders. “I look forward to further comment and clarification from the president when he gets here.”

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When asked to clarify Pence’s message on whether the joint military exercises would continue, Gardner, who leads a Senate panel overseeing policy toward North Korea, responded, “I think there are certain exercises that will continue, yes.” The senator added that because of Trump’s comments referring to the end of the exercises, “that’s why I said there needs to be some clarification.”

Alyssa Farah, a spokeswoman for Pence, quickly tweeted after Gardner’s remarks that the vice president “didn’t say this at the Senate lunch today.”

Gardner issued a tweet elaborating more on Pence’s comments during the closed-door lunch, saying the vice president was “very clear” that “regular readiness training and training exchanges will continue.”

In another follow-up tweet, Gardner said Pence “went on to say while this readiness training and exchanges will occur, war games will not.”

Senators react to President Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong Un on June 12. (Video: Jordan Frasier/The Washington Post)

According to a Pence aide, the vice president was asked about force readiness during the Senate GOP lunch and stressed that while the semiannual “war games” would end, the regular readiness training would continue.

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Ending what Trump referred to as “war games” — the annual joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea — was one of the biggest wins Kim secured during the landmark meeting in Singapore earlier Tuesday. Trump called the exercises “very provocative” and “inappropriate,” while also noting that ending them would save money.

But there was little immediate clarity on what ending the exercises entails. Col. Jennifer Lovett, a spokeswoman at the U.S. military command in South Korea, said the command “has received no updated guidance on execution or cessation of training exercises.”

Those exercises include the Ulchi-Freedom Guardian drills scheduled for August.

Other Republicans raised questions about the necessity of ending the exercises. 

“I don’t think that’s wise,” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa). “We have done these exercises for years with the South Koreans, and so I would just ask the president, why do we need to suspend them? They are legal.”