Trump’s halt of ‘war games’ could weaken de­fences in Korea

The Western Star - - WORLD -

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s de­ci­sion to sus­pend ma­jor U.S. mil­i­tary ex­er­cises in South Korea could weaken al­lied de­fences, de­pend­ing on the length and scope of the hia­tus. But the po­ten­tial for diplo­matic dam­age seems even greater.

The United States, South Korea and Ja­pan were mak­ing a pub­lic dis­play of sol­i­dar­ity Thursday over the out­come of Trump’s sum­mit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. But an­a­lysts and for­mer of­fi­cials with ex­pe­ri­ence in U.S.-Asia pol­icy were shaken by Trump’s fail­ure to in­form the Asian al­lies — or even the Pen­tagon — be­fore moth­balling the mil­i­tary ma­noeu­vrs.

“Those ex­er­cises are crit­i­cally im­por­tant be­cause they are de­ter­rence,’’ said Chuck Hagel, a for­mer de­fence sec­re­tary in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. He wel­comed Trump’s will­ing­ness to talk to Kim but wor­ried that the pres­i­dent has un­der­es­ti­mated the com­pli­ca­tions he has in­tro­duced for the Pen­tagon by sus­pend­ing the mil­i­tary drills.

“You don’t just shut them on and off like a wa­ter faucet,’’ he said.

The ex­er­cises in ques­tion go well be­yond rou­tine train­ing, which ap­par­ently is un­af­fected by Trump’s de­ci­sion. Large-scale ex­er­cises are done to en­sure that evolv­ing tac­tics, pro­ce­dures and plans can be car­ried out smoothly and that U. S. and South Korean forces are in sync. They also are a means of show­ing al­lied sol­i­dar­ity, which is part of the psy­chol­ogy of de­ter­ring en­emy at­tack.

The U.S. has sta­tioned com­bat troops in South Korea since the Korean War ended in 1953 with an armistice and no peace treaty. The more than 28,000 U.S. forces serve as a mil­i­tary trip­wire against North Korean ag­gres­sion. The next ma­jor ex­er­cise with South Korea is known as Ulchi Free­dom Guardian; last year’s ver­sion was held for 11 days in Au­gust and in­volved about 17,500 U.S. troops.

The U.S. has in­sisted these kinds of drills are de­fen­sive mea­sures to demon­strate U.S. and South Korean pre­pared­ness to re­spond promptly to any ag­gres­sion by the North. But when Trump an­nounced his de­ci­sion to halt them, he char­ac­ter­ized them as “provoca­tive’’ and as “war games.’’

“Those are lit­er­ally the North Korean and Chi­nese talk­ing points,’’ said Chris­tine Wor­muth, the Pen­tagon’s top pol­icy of­fi­cial from 2014 to 2016.

In fur­ther ex­plain­ing his rea­sons for sus­pend­ing ma­jor ex­er­cises, Trump said they “cost a for­tune,’’ though even the Pen­tagon, which foots the bill for U.S. par­tic­i­pa­tion in all such ma­noeu­vrs, has been un­able to say what they cost.

AP PHOTO

South Korean and U.S. marines aim their ma­chine guns dur­ing a joint mil­i­tary ex­er­cise be­tween the two coun­tries in Po­hang, South Korea.

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