US follows through on promise to cancel ‘war games’ with S. Korea
By KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 18, 2018
SEOUL, South Korea — The United States followed through on its promise to North Korea, announcing Tuesday that it was canceling war games with South Korea that had been slated for August and was expecting concrete steps toward denuclearization in return.
The announcement came a week after President Donald Trump emerged from his landmark summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and announced that “we are ending the war games.”
He surprised allies, lawmakers and military officials by criticizing them as “provocative” and “very expensive.”
The annual drills — a cornerstone of the longstanding U.S.-South Korean alliance — have been a frequent source of tension with the North, which considers them rehearsals for an invasion and has long called for them to be canceled.
In providing the first details about the extent of the suspension, the allies said that for now it was limited to a two-week computerized simulation known as Ulchi Freedom Guardian, which had been scheduled for August.
“Consistent with President Donald J. Trump's commitment to North Korea and in concert with South Korea, the United States military has suspended all planning for Ulchi Freedom Guardian, this August's defensive war game,” the Pentagon said.
“We are still coordinating additional actions,” spokeswoman Dana White added in the statement. “No decisions on subsequent war games have been made.”
The defense secretary, the secretary of state and the national security adviser are to hold a meeting on the issue at the Pentagon later this week, she said.
“There is no impact on Pacific exercises outside of the Korean Peninsula,” she added, apparently referring to the Pacific Rim international maritime drills to be held this summer in Hawaii.
South Korea’s defense ministry issued a similar statement, although it didn’t use the term “war games.”
“We are making sufficient preparations to ensure there won’t be any problems regarding the … combined defense posture,” ministry spokeswoman Choi Hyun-soo told reporters.
She added that officials expect the North to take a measure that “corresponds” with the exercise’s suspension.
The U.S. administration has insisted the suspension is conditional on the North holding “good faith” negotiations over demands that it take verifiable steps to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
Critics said the decision to stop the drills without first obtaining reciprocal measures was a major concession that could backfire. Supporters, however, argued that it was a low-risk gesture because the drills could be resumed at any time.
The decision to cancel the exercises is rare but not unprecedented. A springtime exercise known as Team Spirit was canceled in 1992 but resumed the next year.
Trump and Kim agreed during nearly five hours of talks in Singapore to work toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, but the North Korean leader made no specific commitments on eliminating or reducing his country’s nuclear arsenal.
“Suspending U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises is a mistake,” Sen. John McCain, R.-Ariz., said last week in a statement, adding “making unnecessary and unreciprocated concessions is not in our interests.”
The U.S. and South Korea — which fought against the communist-backed North in the 1950-53 Korean War — train together throughout the year across all branches of the military.
Ulchi Freedom Guardian, which began in 1976, is one of two major exercises and largely comprises a computerized scenario mimicking a war with the North.
Last year, about 17,500 U.S. servicemembers including units from other countries participated in the drills. Planning starts months in advance and requires extensive logistical coordination.
Two overlapping exercises known as Foal Eagle — which lasts as long as two months and involves maneuvers with thousands of troops, warships and fighter jets — and another computer simulation called Key Resolve take place in the spring.
Commanders insist the drills are defensive in nature and vital for readiness. The use of the term “war games” in Tuesday’s press release was a marked departure from the military’s usual cautious wording.
Retired Adm. Harry 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 the “pause” in joint exercises as a chance to test Kim’s seriousness about eliminating his nuclear arsenal.
Lindsey Ford, a former Asia security specialist at the Defense Department, said the operational impact would likely be limited as long as UFG is the only exercise canceled.
“If this evolves into a broader cancellation of U.S.-[South Korean] training exercises, it could have a profound impact on the readiness of both U.S. and South Korean forces,” she said.
Ford, now with the Asia Society Policy Institute in Washington, said Trump’s harsh criticism of the military exercises also could play into the hands of North Korea and its communist benefactor China.
“North Korea now knows they're pushing on an open door in terms of eliminating military exercises they find objectionable,” she said in an email. “We have to assume they'll now continue pushing for further concessions on this front. China is likely to do the same.”
Experts say North Korea may make limited concessions in exchange for rewards including the relaxation of economic sanctions, but it’s not likely to give up its arsenal after demonstrating strong advances last year with three intercontinental ballistic missile tests and its sixth and most powerful nuclear test.
The communist state has not conducted a missile test in nearly seven months and announced ahead of the summit that it was suspending tests of nuclear weapons and ICBMs. But it is believed to maintain fissile material to produce dozens of nuclear bombs and other facilities.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, meanwhile, said Trump also had agreed to “alter” the 1953 armistice that ended the war after the sides failed to reach a peace treaty.
The statement suggested another promise from the first U.S.-North Korean summit that hadn’t been announced at the time.
Kim “has made very clear his commitment to fully denuclearize his country,” Pompeo said during a speech in Detroit.
“In return for that, the president has committed to making sure that we alter the armistice agreement, provide the security assurances that Chairman Kim needs,” he added.
The two Koreas agreed during their own April 27 summit to work toward the largely symbolic move of declaring a formal end to the war after decades of bitter stalemate.
But then-South Korean President Syngman Rhee wanted to continue fighting and refused to sign the armistice.
That would presumably leave it to signatories the U.S.-led United Nations Command, North Korea and China to reach a permanent peace deal.