South Korea and United States will end their annual springtime joint military exercises to help build peace on the Korean Peninsula, according to the allies’ defense ministries on Sunday.
The announcement that they will shut down the annual Key Resolve and Foal Eagle drills - the largest exercises conducted every year by the allies - comes only days after the much-anticipated U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, ended with no deal on Thursday.
While preparations to end the exercises had been undertaken for some time, the decision was finalized in a phone conversation between South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo and his U.S. counterpart, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, Saturday evening, according to a joint press release from the Pentagon.
“The Minister and Secretary made clear that the Alliance’s decision to adapt our training program reflected our desire to reduce tension and support our diplomatic efforts to achieve complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a final, fully verified manner,” read the press statement.
Key Resolve will instead be replaced with a new nine-day command post simulation exercise named Dong Maeng - which translates to alliance in English - that will kick off today and continue until next week. According to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Park Han-ki and its Combined Forces Commander Gen. Robert Abrams, the new computer war games “are crucial in sustaining and strengthening the alliance.”
Taking Foal Eagle’s place will be another exercise reduced to a battalion or lower-level field drill under a different name. Exercises at a regiment level or above will be conducted separately by the two allies’ militaries, though joint training to supplement their mutual reinforcement and communication capacities are to be regularly conducted.
In March 2017, the Foal Eagle drills involved around 11,500 U.S. troops and around 290,000 South Korean troops coordinating operations by land, sea and air in simulation of a wartime situation. Key Resolve is a computer war game that usually took place around a similar time between February and March.
Both exercises were scaled down last year in light of a warming diplomatic situation on the peninsula as the North took part in the Winter Olympics in South Korea in February and held its first summit in over a decade with Seoul. North Korea has long been fiercely critical of joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States, calling them rehearsals for an invasion of its territory and demanding they be ended in light of efforts to create peace on the peninsula. In U.S. President Donald Trump, it found an unexpected partner in reaching that goal.
Following his first meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore in June, Trump made a bombshell comment at a press conference, saying he would suspend the “very provocative” war games with South Korea while engaging with the North on denuclearization.
The allies subsequently suspended several major joint exercises altogether last year, including the Ulchi-Freedom Guardian drills in August and the Vigilant Ace aerial exercises in October.
Former U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis revealed in November that Foal Eagle would be further “reduced in scope” in 2019 while insisting it would not be canceled.
All the while, analysts warned the reduction in training could affect the United States’ ability to react to a conflict contingency in the region. During his nomination hearing at the Senate last August, Gen. Abrams, commander of the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), said that suspension of the exercises led to a “slight degradation” in readiness.
While he had little to show for progress on the diplomatic front after a broken second summit with Kim at Hanoi last week, Trump nonetheless reiterated his aversion to the joint drills on Thursday, claiming they were costing the United States “hundreds of millions of dollars.”
“Look, you know, exercising is fun and it’s nice and they play the war games,” he said at a post-summit press conference. “And I’m not saying it’s not necessary, because at some levels it is, but at other levels it’s not. But it’s a very, very expensive thing. And you know, we do have to think about that too.”
While the allies’ defense authorities say the termination of the two annual exercises is aimed at supporting continued diplomatic engagements with Pyongyang, Trump’s fixation with their cost may have played a part in the decision, which was announced after the summit with Kim ended.
Earlier this month, Seoul signed a new deal with Washington in which it agreed to pay a larger share of the costs for stationing the USFK as a result of continued pressure from the Trump administration.
While the end of the joint drills may renew concerns over a possible loosening of military coordination between the allies, they nonetheless present the potential to breathe new life into denuclearization negotiations with Pyongyang that appeared to be set back by the failure to sign a deal in Vietnam.