The United States and South Korea are expected to announce in the coming days that annual military exercises between the two nations are to be scaled back, according to a US defense official.
The large-scale military exercises, known as Foal Eagle and Key Resolve, had been scheduled for this spring. Now, according to the official, the US and South Korea will instead conduct scaled down exercises at a small unit level that could involve virtual training.
Defense officials say they can achieve the necessary training goals through the pared down exercises.The announcement is expected to come shortly, following President Donald Trump’s decision to walk away from negotiations with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam.
It can be seen as a good faith gesture of Washington’s intent to continue engagement with Pyongyang, analysts said, but also as a way of reducing the possibility of incidents that escalate out of control.
The US has already suspended several larger military exercises as part of an effort to ease tensions with North Korea following the last year’s Singapore summit between the two leaders.The pending decision to pare back exercises represents the continued restraint both sides have demonstrated after the Singapore meeting, said Scott Snyder, a senior fellow for Korea Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
In the months since that June meeting, there’s been “restraint by North Korea on tests and it looks like the US will restrain itself on large military exercises,” Snyder said. The US is “trying to adjust the types of exercises, not abandon them, to make them less provocative and send a more clear signal that they’re not designed to be offensively threatening.
“In a news conference following last June’s summit Trump called the exercises “provocative,” stating, “It’s inappropriate to be having war games.”Trump has also questioned the usefulness of the exercises, citing the disproportionate share of the cost borne by the US.
Former Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters last November that the 2019 version of the Foal Eagle exercise was being “reorganized a bit” to keep from “being harmful to diplomacy.”On Friday, Defense Department officials refused to comment publicly about the status of the joint exercises but said they will proceed unless Trump specifically orders them canceled.
“The (US-South Korean) alliance remains ironclad,” said Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Eastburn, when asked about the exercises. “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.”
“The important thing here is there is a kind of plan for maintaining readiness, but in ways designed to be less provocative,” Snyder said. “Showing restraint in exercises is OK, refraining would not be appropriate. What would be unacceptable would be the prohibition on … exercises.
“The US step supports measures that South Korea and North Korea launched last year to reduce military tensions, including establishing no-fly zones along their border, halting artillery and other military drills close to the demilitarized zone, dismantling several heavily armed guard posts inside the DMZ and creating a maritime peace zone.
Other confidence building measures are being discussed.These measures “lay a solid foundation for more far-reaching measures to reduce the risk of a surprise attack or inadvertent conflict,” Richard Sokolsky from the Stimson Center website 38 North, which tracks North Korea.The US has been focused on North Korea’s denuclearization, “but a ‘bolt out of the blue’ North Korean nuclear attack on the United States, which would be suicidal for the Kim dynasty and his country, has always been a fantastical scenario,” Sokolsky wrote.
“The most likely trigger for any large-scale conventional conflict between North Korea and US/ROK forces has always been a local incident or accident that escalates out of control.”Earlier this month the US and South Korea reached a preliminary agreement on the cost of keeping nearly 30,000 troops in South Korea.
Under the revised Special Measures Agreement, South Korea would boost its financial contribution to nearly $1 billion, according to a State Department official and South Korean media. That’s an increase from the roughly $800 million it had been paying per year during the previous five-year commitment.
In an early February interview with CBS, Trump said he has “no plans” to withdraw US troops from South Korea and claimed to have “never even discussed removing them,” but said “maybe someday” he would withdraw US forces from the country.
“I mean, who knows. But, you know, it’s very expensive to keep troops there,” Trump said, even though US military officials have said it is cheaper to house those troops in South Korea than in the US.