Impact of halting US-S. Korean war games will depend on scope
By KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 14, 2018
SINGAPORE — U.S. and South Korean commanders have long stressed the need for joint military exercises to ensure readiness to “fight tonight” and deter the threat from the North.
But the idea of using the annual drills as a bargaining chip in nuclear negotiations with North Korea is not new.
China and Russia have called for a “freeze for freeze” in which the war games would stop and the North would suspend nuclear and missile tests, giving the adversaries room to talk.
The United States also canceled exercises in the early 1990s amid talks that led to the short-lived Agreed Framework.
More recently, U.S. Forces Korea agreed to delay the start of springtime drills until after the Pyeongchang Olympics to facilitate the burgeoning peace process between North and South Korea.
War games or exercises
President Donald Trump rejected the idea of a freeze early in his administration, insisting as did his predecessors, that the U.S. would accept nothing less than complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization.
In a remarkable shift, he reversed his stance after meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un Tuesday in Singapore, the first-ever summit between the two countries who have been rivals since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice instead of a peace treaty.
“We will be stopping the war games … unless and until we see the future negotiation is not going along like it should,” Trump said, almost as an aside during a press conference.
The president singled out supersonic bombers deployed from Guam in shows of force, which infuriate the North.
“We’ll be saving a tremendous amount of money. Plus, I think it’s very provocative,” he added.
Trump also said he wanted to remove U.S. troops from the peninsula “but that’s not part of the equation right now.”
His use of terms like "war games" and calling them "provocative" was itself a major departure from the usually cautious military descriptions.
Critics expressed concern that the president had made a key concession to the North — which considers the drills rehearsals for an invasion — while getting little in return.
But many lawmakers and experts said the impact of halting the exercises would depend on the scope. Trump didn't elaborate on what he meant by "war games," although the next set of drills was planned for August.
Former Defense Secretary William Cohen said the annual exercises, which are considered a lynchpin of the U.S.-South Korean alliance, are worth the cost.
“To point out how expensive it is misses the point of what strategic deterrence is and how it protects U.S. interests as well as those of South Korea,” he said on CNBC.
Kim, the third leader in a family dynasty that has ruled the communist state since it was founded in 1948, has promised to stop intercontinental ballistic missile tests and to destroy the country’s main nuclear testing site.
But the isolated country still has the components and facilities to make nuclear weapons and is believed to have dozens in its arsenal already.
It also has conventional artillery and more than a million troops poised across the heavily fortified border.
Beyond the rhetoric
Going beyond the rhetoric, the U.S.-South Korean military exercises serve as much of a practical purpose as political. They come in many forms, from desktop simulations to battalion-size joint training and maneuvers involving thousands of troops, warships and fighter jets.
The highest-profile drills happen twice a year.
Foal Eagle, a field exercise that often includes a Normandy-style Marine amphibious landing, and simultaneous computer-simulated drills known as Key Resolve happen in the spring.
Ulchi Freedom Guardian — another command-post exercise that involves more time staring at computer screens in bunkers than using weapons — is held in the fall.
It’s the messaging that causes tensions to rise and fall.
Last year, the North warned that the U.S. would face “merciless retaliation” if it went through with Ulchi Freedom Guardian, which involved some 17,500 American troops and 350,000 South Koreans.
U.S. and South Koreans lined up in front of a defensive Patriot missile launcher on Aug. 22 to defend the exercises, which the allies insist are defensive in nature.
“A strong diplomatic effort backed by a strong military effort is key because credible combat power should be in support of diplomacy and not the other way around,” Adm. Harry Harris, then the head of U.S. Pacific Command, told reporters at Osan Air Base.
However, Harris, who has been nominated to be the new U.S. ambassador to South Korea, told a Senate committee in Washington on Thursday that he welcomes a “pause” in joint exercises.
"I think we are in a dramatically different place,” Harris said. “I think the whole landscape has shifted and I believe that we should give exercises, major exercises, a pause, to see if Kim Jong Un in fact is serious" about eliminating his nuclear arsenal.
U.S. and South Korean officials say they’re trying to keep a low profile and limit media coverage of training as the mood shifted this year with a flurry of diplomacy that led to the summit.
Advocates of suspending the war games say it’s an easy way to maintain the momentum toward peace and point out the drills can be resumed at any time.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday that Trump “made it very clear” to Kim that the freeze was contingent on continued “productive, good-faith negotiations.”
That didn’t stop the North from gloating, with its state-run news agency reporting that Kim said it was urgent to halt “irritating and hostile military actions against each other.”
The Korean Central News Agency said Trump understood that and “expressed his intention to halt joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises.”
The allies — who fought together in the 1950-53 Korean War that ended in an armistice instead of a peace treaty — also conduct several smaller-scale drills on land, air and sea throughout the year.
Commanders say that’s important because the troops need to make sure systems work and practice working together to overcome obstacles such as language issues.
“We exercise because — as any athlete or coach knows— the way we practice is the way we play,” William McKinney, a defense analyst and retired Army colonel, wrote in a commentary published on 38 North.
“However, since war is not a game, the ‘practice’; that is, the exercise, becomes all that more important and necessary,” he added.
McKinney said the freeze could be an important confidence-building measure.
He argued that the allies could still conduct lower-level unilateral and combined exercises “with a focus on high-level, decision-making” and no publicity.
“Most U.S.-[South Korean]combined exercises are conducted at the operational level and are designed to meet less strategic, high policy level needs,” he said.