Halt to military drills jolts allies, Pentagon
S. Korea and Japan weren’t told prior to announcement
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.”