Halt to mil­i­tary drills jolts al­lies, Pen­tagon

S. Korea and Ja­pan weren’t told prior to an­nounce­ment

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD - By David S. Cloud Wash­ing­ton Bureau’s Tracy Wilkinson con­trib­uted.

WASH­ING­TON — Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump an­nounced a halt to joint mil­i­tary ex­er­cises with South Korea on Tues­day, rais­ing alarm at the Pen­tagon, in Congress and among al­lies that the U.S. might back away from long­stand­ing de­fense com­mit­ments in the re­gion with­out con­crete con­ces­sions from long bel­liger­ent North Korea.

Trump un­veiled the move at a news con­fer­ence with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un after their sum­mit in Sin­ga­pore. He said he also wants to even­tu­ally with­draw the 28,500 U.S. troops per­ma­nently sta­tioned in the South as a de­ter­rent against North Korea, which un­til just months ago was threat­en­ing Seoul and Wash­ing­ton with nu­clear war.

Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials said halt­ing the joint ex­er­cises is a rel­a­tively mod­est con­ces­sion that has great sym­bolic im­por­tance to Py­ongyang. By help­ing to build trust be­tween two long­time ad­ver­saries, the of­fi­cials ar­gued, the U.S. ac­tion could make it more likely that Kim will move for­ward on talks aimed at elim­i­nat­ing his nu­clear ar­se­nal.

But Trump’s seem­ingly off-hand re­marks, with­out warn­ing to al­lies South Korea and Ja­pan, marked a po­ten­tially sharp shift in U.S. de­fense pos­ture in East Asia and con­tra­dicted decades of state­ments by Amer­i­can of­fi­cials that the ex­er­cises are de­fen­sive only and cru­cial for de­ter­ring North Korea.

Fur­ther un­set­tling for­eign al­lies and even Repub­li­cans in Congress, the pres­i­dent echoed North Korea’s own pe­jo­ra­tive phrases in an­nounc­ing sus­pen­sion of the joint ex­er­cises with South Korea. Trump said he had agreed to stop the “war games” be­cause they are “very provoca­tive,” terms used by North Korea in de­nounc­ing the drills, adding that it would save the United States “a tremen­dous amount of money.”

He said the ex­er­cises would be sus­pended “un­less and un­til we see the fu­ture ne­go­ti­a­tion” on elim­i­nat­ing Py­ongyang’s nu­clear ar­se­nal “is not go­ing along like it should.”

The de­ci­sion was quickly por­trayed by crit­ics as a one-sided give­away to a coun­try that main­tains one of the largest stand­ing mil­i­tary forces in the world.

“Th­ese ex­er­cises for years have served as an im­por­tant sig­nal that the United States sup­ports our al­lies in the re­gion,” said Sen. Dianne Fe­in­stein, D-Calif., in a state­ment. “It con­cerns me that the pres­i­dent is mak­ing con­ces­sions to North Korea with noth­ing to show in re­turn.”

Sen. David Per­due, R-Ga., of the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, told re­porters he was “very trou­bled” and “sur­prised.”

In re­sponse to Repub­li­can sen­a­tors’ wor­ries, Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence re­as­sured them that smaller, rou­tine train­ing ex­er­cises will con­tinue, ac­cord­ing to Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo.

Pen­tagon of­fi­cials have long be­lieved that the much larger, yearly ex­er­cises de­ter North Korea and im­prove the readi­ness of U.S and South Korean troops. Former mil­i­tary com­man­ders who worked in South Korea say the drills are es­sen­tial in a for­eign theater where Of­fi­cers say joint mil­i­tary ex­er­cises by U.S. and South Korean forces are vi­tal to readi­ness. rank-and-file ser­vice mem­bers, their of­fi­cers and the civil­ian an­a­lysts who sup­port them turn over an­nu­ally.

This year, four ex­er­cises were con­ducted from early April to late May. One, called Foal Eagle, in­volved 11,500 U.S. and 290,000 South Korean troops. It was fol­lowed by Key Re­solve, which used com­puter sim­u­la­tion of a pos­si­ble at­tack by North Korea to im­prove head­quar­ters com­mand and con­trol.

Those were fol­lowed by War­rior Strike and Max Thun­der, the lat­ter an ex­er­cise that was to in­clude send­ing U.S. bombers from Guam to South Korean airspace. Com­man­ders aban­doned that sce­nario to avoid an­ger­ing Py­ongyang ahead of the sum­mit.

Trump’s an­nounce­ment ap­par­ently caught U.S. mil­i­tary com­man­ders and of­fi­cials in South Korea and Ja­pan by sur­prise. Both coun­tries have long­stand­ing de­fense treaties with the United States.

“There is concern for both al­lies,” said Vic­tor Cha, for­merly a na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser to the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion. “They are see­ing their is­sues be­come bar­gain­ing chips” with Kim.

The U.S. mil­i­tary com­mand in South Korea has “re­ceived no of­fi­cial up­dated guid­ance on ex­e­cu­tion or ces­sa­tion on any up­com­ing train­ing ex­er­cises,” said Army Col. Chad Car­roll, a spokesman for the com­mand. “We will con­tinue with our cur­rent mil­i­tary pos­ture un­til we re­ceive up­dated guid­ance.”

De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis, how­ever, was “not sur­prised” by the de­ci­sion to can­cel the drills, said spokes­woman Dana White. “They had spo­ken on all of th­ese is­sues well in ad­vance.”

CHUNG SUNG-JUN/GETTY 2009

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