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US, S. Korea officially call off annual military exercises amid nuclear talks with N. Korea

U.S. and South Korean sailors listen to a safety briefing during a Foal Eagle exercise in Jinhae, South Korea, March 13, 2017.

TORREY LEE/U.S. NAVY

By KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 2, 2019

SEOUL, South Korea — The United States and South Korea canceled key war games in favor of low-profile drills, the allies said Sunday, in a major concession to North Korea days after its nuclear summit with President Donald Trump collapsed without agreement.

The springtime exercises known as Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, along with their autumn counterpart Ulchi Freedom Guardian, have long been the lynchpin of the alliance between Seoul and Washington.

The drills, which include computer simulations and live-fire bombing runs, also have been a touchstone for tensions as the North considers them a rehearsal for an invasion.

The decision to cancel Key Resolve and Foal Eagle had been widely expected after Trump reiterated his own antipathy for the drills, which he has called “very expensive” and “provocative.”

Rebranding exercises

A rebranded “combined command post exercise” will be held from Monday to March 12, according to a separate statement issued Sunday by the top U.S. and South Korean commanders on the divided peninsula.

Commanders and other military officials insisted they can maintain a strong defensive posture with scaled-back training.

Gen. Robert Abrams, who assumed command of U.S. Forces Korea in November, has downplayed the impact of the exercises moratorium, saying troops have conducted dozens of small-scale drills since October.
“We continue to aggressively pursue innovative approaches to joint and combined training and are committed to demonstrating that creating space for diplomacy need not impede military readiness,” he told the Senate Armed Services committee on Feb. 12.

But critics expressed concern that the Trump administration was sacrificing military readiness to promote diplomacy with little to show for it since the North maintains its nuclear weapons stocks.

“Following close coordination, both sides decided to conclude the KEY RESOLVE and FOAL EAGLE series of exercises,” the Pentagon said Saturday in a readout of a call between acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan and his South Korean counterpart, Jeong Kyong-doo.

The defense chiefs “agreed to maintain firm military readiness through newly designed Command Post exercises and revised field training programs.”

It didn’t elaborate. The Associated Press quoted U.S. officials as saying the new training will comprise tabletop exercises and simulations involving smaller units and focusing on mission essential tasks, such as the ability to integrate airstrikes and the use of drones and surveillance assets.

The Pentagon statement linked the decision to nuclear negotiations that began early last year, reversing months of tensions that saw Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un trade threats of war.

“The Minister and Secretary made clear that the Alliance decision to adapt our training program reflected our desire to reduce tension and support our diplomatic efforts to achieve complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a final, fully verified manner,” the readout said.

They also agreed to meet “in the near future” to further deepen the alliance that was forged in the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in an armistice instead of a peace treaty.

Introducing Dong Maeng

The top U.S. and South Korean generals, meanwhile, announced that a modified exercise called Dong Maeng, which means alliance, will begin on Monday. It will focus on strategic, operational, and tactical aspects of general military operations on the Korean Peninsula,” according to a statement.

"It is important for professional armies to train and maintain to a standard of readiness,” said Abrams and the Combined Forces Command, and South Korea’s Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Park Han-ki. “These exercises are crucial in sustaining and strengthening the alliance.”

The U.S. maintains some 28,500 servicemembers to serve as a deterrent to North Korean aggression as well as a line of defense.

The exercises have been used for political messaging in the past.

The Trump administration deployed powerful aircraft carriers and strategic bombers to the divided peninsula as the North demonstrated progress in its nuclear weapons development with a series of missile and nuclear tests in 2016-17.

But then Washington agreed to postpone the spring drills last year to encourage the North to join the Winter Olympics, which was widely considered the first step in the current detente.

That was followed by Trump’s announcement that he was suspending drills following the Singapore summit.

Trump initially surprised allies and even his own generals when he suspended the military exercises after his first summit with Kim on June 12 in Singapore.

Trump and Kim met for a second time Wednesday and Thursday in Hanoi, Vietnam.

The summit ended early after they deadlocked over demands for the lifting of economic sanctions in exchange for dismantling the nuclear apparatus. But both sides vowed to continue negotiations.

Cost complaints

The president addressed his complaints about the military exercises in response to a question at a press conference before he flew out of Hanoi on Thursday.

“We spend hundreds of millions of dollars on those exercises, and I hated to see it. I thought it was unfair,” he said. “And frankly, I was sort of the opinion that South Korea should help us with that.”

“And I was telling the generals, I said, ‘look, exercises is fun and it’s nice and they play the war games,’” he said. “And I’m not saying it’s not necessary because on some levels it is, but on other levels it’s not. But it’s a very, very expensive thing and we do have to think about that, too.”

Analysts stressed the value of the military exercises is hard to calculate since they involve active duty troops and assets that are already funded.

Last year, the Pentagon said it saved about $14 million with the cancellation of Ulchi Freedom Guardian, which was comparable in size and scope to Foal Eagle and Key Resolve.

Retired Navy Vice Adm. Robert Murrett said small-scale training is insufficient to prepare commanders and troops from both countries to overcome language and other difficulties to fight together if needed.

“That’s a little bit of a Band-Aid, but it doesn’t substitute the larger scale engagement we need to have,” said Murrett, now a Syracuse University professor.

“It’s very serious because I think our capability with respect to the Korean Peninsula is in the process of atrophying at all the levels,” he added.

gamel.kim@stripes.com
Twitter: @kimgamel

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