What's Not Said in the North Korea Deal: The De Facto 'Double Freeze'

 From left, Rear Adm. Michael E. Boyle, commander, U.S. Naval Forces Korea, Vice Adm. Phillip G. Sawyer, commander, U.S. 7th Fleet, and Republic of Korea (ROK) Navy Vice Adm. Jung, Jin-sup, commander, ROK Fleet, sit for a combined ROK-U.S. briefing. (Feb. 28, 2018)

From left, Rear Adm. Michael E. Boyle, commander, U.S. Naval Forces Korea, Vice Adm. Phillip G. Sawyer, commander, U.S. 7th Fleet, and Republic of Korea (ROK) Navy Vice Adm. Jung, Jin-sup, commander, ROK Fleet, sit for a combined ROK-U.S. briefing. (Feb. 28, 2018)

[Update 4:06 p.m.: Vice President Mike Pence told Senators that military "war games" with South Korea have been suspended, but regular readiness and exchanges will still go ahead, despite Trump's comments in Singapore, per Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Co. So, maybe a one-and-three-quarters freeze?]

It's just a few hours since President Donald Trump's historic sit-down with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and, depending on where you're sitting, it was a monumental success, little more than a shallow PR stunt or somewhere in between.

The actual joint statement that was signed doesn't exactly help things either way -- it sounds good, but it's pretty vague. Observers noted that it's not unlike an agreement from back in 1993 that didn't exactly pan out well.

But outside of the actual provisional agreement, there was a significant concession on each side. In April North Korea promised to halt nuclear and missile tests. Then, overnight, Trump made the surprise announcement that the U.S. would suspend joint military exercises with South Korea, which he called expensive and "very provocative."

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If those two moves sound at all familiar, it's because in August of last year Code and Dagger reported that Russia and China had floated them as a compromise to ratchet down tension between the U.S. and North Korea. (These were the days when a cross-armed Trump threatened North Korea with "fire and fury" if it endangered the U.S.)

"Russia together with China developed a very smart plan which proposes 'double freezing': Kim Jong-un should freeze nuclear tests and stop launching any types of ballistic missiles, while [the] U.S. and South Korea should freeze large-scale drills, which are used as a pretext for the North’s tests," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said then, according to the state-funded outlet Russia Today

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At the time, two former CIA officials and an ex-Pentagon advisor told Code and Dagger it would be a bad idea to go along with the plan. From that previous report:

Sue Mi Terry, who prior to the NSC was a senior analyst on Korean issues at the CIA, told Code and Dagger that similar deals have been floated in weeks past and they were all rejected by President Donald Trump’s administration. The New York Times reported in June that Chinese and South Korean officials had proposed versions of the ‘freezing’ deals, but instead Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Gen. James Mattis urged China to exert more pressure on North Korea.

Former NSC member Ned Price, who also worked at the CIA, said the two ‘freezes’ were hardly equal to begin with.

’[North Korea’s] nuclear and ballistic missile tests are illegal,’ he said. ‘Joint military exercises are a natural feature of any alliance. Putting these two on the same plane would not be in our interest.’

Tactically it would be a poor move for the U.S. as well, according to former Defense Department advisor for East Asia policy James Schoff. Despite the saber-rattling over nuclear weapons these past few days, Schoff said it’s more likely North Korea would use nuclear weapons as a ‘final line of defense’ after the start of a conventional military conflict, and therefore the U.S. would not be ‘willing to trade a decline in [conventional] readiness status for status quo on nukes/missiles.’

’It could be dangerous, actually, [because a] conventional skirmish is most likely the start of bigger conflict, so the U.S. needs to keep up conventional deterrence,’ said Schoff, who is now a senior fellow in the Carnegie Asia Program.

Trump's announcement suspending the military drills reportedly took South Korea by surprise. The U.S. ally's military put out a short statement saying it was still trying to determine Trump's intention.

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