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Pentagon plans scaled-back spring training exercise in South Korea as Trump-Kim negotiations falter

Petty Officer 2nd Class Laurence Cerezo conducts flight operations with a U.S. Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter as part of exercise Foal Eagle 2017.

JEREMY GRAHAM/U.S. NAVY PHOTO

By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 28, 2019

WASHINGTON – The U.S. military intends to hold a scaled-back version of its annual spring training exercise with South Korean troops in March, Pentagon officials said Thursday after the second meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un abruptly ended with no nuclear agreement.

The simultaneous, command-level exercises, which have long been known as Foal Eagle and Key Resolve, were scheduled to continue as planned on a scaled-back level designed to maintain military readiness without drawing the attention of the North Koreans, two defense officials said Thursday. One of the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Pentagon was, for now, moving forward “status quo” in the wake of Trump and Kim leaving their summit in Vietnam early without a new deal to end the North’s nuclear programs.

The White House has not ordered the Pentagon to halt its planning for the scaled-back exercise, which would involve tens of thousands of American and South Korean troops, the officials said.

One of the officials said some in the Pentagon had expected Trump to scrap the exercises altogether following the meeting, as he did last year after his first unprecedented talks with Kim. Trump has described such operations as expensive and provocative to the North.

Pentagon spokespersons declined Thursday to discuss the status of the upcoming training exercise or to comment on the second summit between Trump and Kim, directing questions to the White House.

"Our forces maintain a high state of military readiness and vigilance in full support of a diplomatically led effort to bring peace, prosperity and stability to the Korean Peninsula,” said Army Lt. Col. Dave Eastburn, a Pentagon spokesman.

The Defense Department has not been directly involved in the negotiations with North Korea aimed at ending its nuclear program. The United States maintains some 28,500 troops in South Korea.

In recent years, Foal Eagle has included some 11,500 American troops and 290,000 South Korean troops, and has consisted of field exercise involving ground, air, naval and special operations troops. Typically, Foal Eagle has been held in the spring alongside the computer-simulated Key Resolve exercise, which included about 12,200 Americans and 10,000 South Korean personnel last year.

Trump, in a news conference in Hanoi, Vietnam on Thursday after ending the meeting with Kim, again said the U.S.-South Korean exercises are expensive and questioned whether they were necessary.

The president claimed each large-scale exercise in South Korea cost the United States about $100 million. Last year, the Pentagon said the cancellation of its major fall exercise, Ulchi Freedom Guardian, which is comparable in size and scope to Foal Eagle and Key Resolve, saved taxpayers about $14 million.

“Those exercises are very expensive,” Trump told reporters in the Vietnamese capital. “And I was telling the generals – I said: ‘Look, you know, exercising is fun, and it's nice and they play the war games. And I'm not saying it's not necessary, because at some levels it is, but at other levels, it's not.’ But it's a very, very expensive thing, and you know, we do have to think about that, too.”

dickstein.corey@stripes.com
Twitter: @CDicksteinDC
 

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