Mattis signals that large-scale US-South Korea military exercises could restart
WASHINGTON — The U.S. military could proceed with long-planned, large-scale training alongside South Korean troops next year after such exercises were suspended this summer as a good-faith gesture in the negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear weapons, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Tuesday.
“We have no plans at this time to suspend any more exercises,” Mattis told reporters during a rare public news conference at the Pentagon alongside Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “We will work very closely … with Secretary of State [Mike Pompeo.] What he needs done, we will certainly do to reinforce his effort, but at this time there’s no discussion about further [exercise] suspensions.”
The Pentagon halted major military exercises on the Korean Peninsula on President Donald Trump’s orders following his June summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Trump derided the exercises, held with the South Koreans for decades, as “very expensive” and “provocative” to the North Koreans. The Pentagon announced later that the cancelation of Ulchi Freedom Guardian, a command-and-control operation involving tens of thousands of troops and held annually since 1976, would save the Defense Department about $14 million.
Mattis emphasized a decision about joint exercises with the South Koreans had not been made and the Pentagon would make a decision in consultation with the State Department, depending on how the negotiations develop with North Korea to end its nuclear program.
But Mattis’ statement Tuesday comes as the United States and North Korea have shown little public evidence the talks have been constructive. Pompeo, for example, halted plans to visit Pyongyang this week for continued discussions with Kim’s regime. Trump announced Friday via Twitter that he was canceling the secretary of state’s trip because of insufficient “progress with respect to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
Late Monday, the Washington Post reported a top North Korean official had sent a secret letter to Trump indicating the planned talks were unlikely to produce results. The newspaper, citing two unnamed senior administration officials, described the letter as belligerent in tone.
The next large-scale exercises on the schedule are the annual Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, massive simultaneous joint U.S.-South Korean defensive operations typically held in February. The exercises were postponed last year until April after the completion of the Winter Olympics and Paralympics in South Korea. North Korea has long described the exercises as “provocative,” claiming they were yearly rehearsals to invade the North.
Pentagon officials, following Mattis’ news conference, said only three joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises — Ulchi Freedom Guardian and two Korean Marine Exchange Program operations — had been suspended officially. The Exchange Program exercises test integration of American and South Korean aviation and ground forces, including live-fire combat exercise, according to a Pentagon description.
Despite the halt in large, joint operations, the roughly 28,500 American troops in South Korea have continued to train, said Marine Lt. Col. Chris Logan, a Pentagon spokesman.
Mattis declined to characterize the ongoing denuclearization negotiations, referring questions about the process to the State Department.
He said holding joint exercises with the South Koreans should not be viewed as a provocation to the North Koreans, but he said he was not prepared to make a decision about the operations.
“I don’t have a crystal ball right now,” Mattis said. “Let’s see how the negotiations go. Even answering a question in that manner could influence the negotiations. Let’s let the negotiations, let the diplomats go forward. We all know the gravity of the issue they are dealing with.”