Pentagon: US troops in South Korea are combat ready despite lack of major training events
By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 28, 2020
WASHINGTON — American troops on the Korean Peninsula are properly prepared to fight alongside South Korean forces if North Korea were to attack, even with large-scale training exercises halted since 2018, senior Pentagon officials said Tuesday.
Last year, the U.S. military and South Korean forces completed 273 of 309 “planned activities,” or training missions, even though three major, large-scale exercises long considered the bedrock of the nations’ military partnership were canceled, said Air Force Lt. Gen. David Allvin, the Joint Staff’s strategy, plans and policy director. The large-scale exercises — Ulchi Freedom Guardian, Key Resolve and Foal Eagle — were canceled in 2018 by President Donald Trump, who called them overly expensive and provocative to North Korea, after he met with that nation’s leader Kim Jong Un.
On Tuesday, Allvin told members of the House Armed Services Committee that “creative reorganizing” of military training in South Korea ensured military preparations were able to continue, even after the Pentagon announced in 2019 that major exercises would be halted indefinitely. The efforts have been spearheaded by Army Gen. Robert Abrams, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea since November 2018.
“Through varying the size, scope, scale and timing of [training events], they were able to execute over 88 percent of those actual planned activities,” Allvin said. “[Abrams’] assessment is that we still have the readiness required to be able to respond to any aggression. … If he felt like he was not able to achieve the readiness to accomplish the mission for which he was assigned, he would certainly come up voicing that, and we’d be hearing that.”
John Rood, the Pentagon’s policy chief, said Tuesday that the military must ensure it retains its strength in South Korea to serve as a deterrent to North Korean aggression, but training on a smaller scale provides the State Department room to negotiate. The talks between the United States and North Korea have stalled in recent months, as the Americans insist Kim must give up his entire nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
After halting all of its missile testing for about a year after Kim and Trump initially met, North Korea returned to testing short-range ballistic missiles in 2019. Kim then warned late last year of a “Christmas gift” for Trump, thought to be a hint at a new missile or nuclear test.
But it never came.
North Korea’s future activities are especially hard to predict, said Rood, who has long watched the rogue nation as a CIA and Pentagon official.
“We are watching very carefully what they are doing,” he said. “We don’t know clearly the reasons why North Korea did not engage in more proactive behavior, which they seemed to be hinting they were planning to do in December.”
Trump has routinely downplayed North Korea’s return to missile testing last year, but U.S. officials have said a launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the U.S. mainland or any nuclear test would likely change the president’s demeanor toward Kim.
“We could very well see some additional missile tests or other activities by the North Koreans, but that’s very speculative at this stage,” Rood said. “Our message to them is we would regard those things as provocative activities. We’ve got to be alert for the possibility that we could see the North conduct those tests.”
House lawmakers on Tuesday said they are pleased that the roughly 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea are prepared to fight if needed, but several of them said they were dissatisfied with the stalled negotiations.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said North Korea’s growing ballistic missile program should be dismantled alongside its nuclear program in any peace agreement with Kim.
“We have not deterred North Korea at all, as they have continued to test missiles and build the equivalent of ICBMs, and continue to have a chemical stockpile,” she said. “We aren’t getting them to do anything to reduce that.”
Rood said he would also like to see those missile programs axed.
“We do try to deter aggression,” he said. “It is a hard thing to deter the pursuit of those [missile] capabilities. And, we think without pressure, the North Koreans will not come to the negotiating table.”