SEOUL, South Korea (UPDATED) – The United States and South Korea said they will end their annual large-scale joint military exercises as Washington pursues efforts to improve ties with North Korea.
The decision comes days after the conclusion of US President Donald Trump’s second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, which ended without a formal agreement but with both sides suggesting they would keep talking.
During a Saturday, March 2 phone call between South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo and his US counterpart Patrick Shanahan, “both sides decided to conclude the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle series of exercises,” according to a Pentagon statement.
The two allies will instead carry out “adjusted outside maneuver trainings and united command exercises to continue firm military readiness”, Seoul’s defense ministry said Sunday.
Foal Eagle is the biggest of the regular joint exercises held by the allies, and has always infuriated Pyongyang, which condemned it as preparations for an invasion.
In the past, it has involved 200,000 South Korean forces and some 30,000 US soldiers.
It is accompanied by Key Resolve, a computer-simulated war game conducted by military commanders which usually begins in March and runs for about 10 days.
The decision was reached to support ongoing diplomatic efforts for North Korea’s denuclearisation and ease military tensions with the North, Seoul’s defense ministry said Sunday, March 3.
Washington and Seoul will instead conduct “modified” drills starting Monday, March 4 to March 12, a joint military statement announced Sunday.
The nine-day exercise, officially named “Dong Maeng” or “Alliance”, will largely focus on joint defense maneuvers rather than the offensive posture of the Key Resolve drill, a South Korean military official who requested anonymity told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
There was no indication of how many US and South Korean troops will be mobilized for the new exercise.
South Korea’s foreign ministry said that Lee Do-hoon, Seoul’s chief nuclear envoy, will also leave for Washington to hold talks with his US counterpart Stephen Biegun.
“Lee will fly sometime this week,” ministry spokesman Noh Kyu-duk told AFP.
Lee and Biegun are expected to discuss the Hanoi summit, which failed to build on the vaguely-worded commitment to denuclearise the Korean peninsula signed by Kim and Trump during their meeting in Singapore last year.
Opponents of scrapping the drills have warned that it could impact the combat readiness of the combined US and South Korean forces and hand the North a strategic advantage on the divided peninsula, but most analysts said such concerns were exaggerated. (READ: South Koreans fearful of ‘nightmare’ U.S. troop withdrawal)
“Suspending or downgrading the US-South Korean drills may hurt the readiness of the two militaries, but I don’t think it’s going to be a serious security threat to South Korea,” Ahn Chan-il, the president of the World Institute for North Korea Studies in Seoul, told AFP.
“The South’s conventional forces outclass the North’s, and given the current situation (with the US and the existing sanctions), it’s highly unlikely that Pyongyang will do anything with its nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future,” he added.
Retired General Vincent Brooks, a former commander of US forces in South Korea who helped organize Trump’s first meeting with Kim in Singapore, said last year that any end to joint training would not hinder the Pentagon’s combat-readiness on the peninsula.
“Perhaps we’ve been told for now to put our sword back into its sheath, but we have not been told to forget how to use it,” he said.
Washington has sought to end long-running tensions on the peninsula and encourage North Korea to scrap its nuclear programme.
Since the Singapore summit, the US and Seoul have scaled back or scrapped several joint military drills, and US bombers are no longer flying over South Korea.
“Not downgrading or suspending the drills at this point … would mean the involved countries are not serious” about reaching a denuclearisation accord, said University of North Korean Studies professor Yang Moo-jin. – Rappler.com