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With Military Exercises Canceled in S. Korea, Experts Express Concern About Impact


FILE - U.S. Army soldiers prepare for military exercises near the North Korea border in Paju, South Korea, March 6, 2017.
FILE - U.S. Army soldiers prepare for military exercises near the North Korea border in Paju, South Korea, March 6, 2017.

The United States and South Korea announced the cancelation of two annual large-scale military drills in an effort to "achieve complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."

It’s a decision that Robert Manning, a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, calls "one of a number of mistakes that have been made that really erode the US position in Northeast Asia."

Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan and South Korea Minister of National Defense Jeong Kyeong-doo decided to end the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle series of exercises during a phone call Saturday, according to a Pentagon statement.

The Pentagon statement also added that "Both the Minister and Secretary agreed that close coordination between the military activities of the United States and Republic of Korea will continue to support diplomatic efforts."

Shanahan further tweeted he and Jeong "agreed to maintain strong military readiness through newly designed Command Post exercises & revised field training programs. Together we are ready to meet any security challenge."

U.S. President Donald Trump has long complained about the cost of large-scale drills.

"The reason I do not want military drills with South Korea is to save hundreds of millions of dollars for the U.S. for which we are not reimbursed. That was my position long before I became President. Also, reducing tensions with North Korea at this time is a good thing!" he wrote on Twitter.

Cancellation impact

It is unclear if the announcement to end the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises was related to the inability of President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to reach a deal on denuclearization when they met last week in Hanoi.

Trump added in another tweet Monday that he did not talk about the military drills with Kim. He called reports that he had mentioned the war games "fake news."

Robert Manning of the Atlantic Council calls the timing "coincidental."

"You may recall that after the first summit last June, President Trump without telling anybody, including his secretary of defense or the commander of U.S. forces in Korea… [President Trump] unilaterally decided that we were going to suspend exercises without getting anything for it," he said.

North Korea has long called for joint military exercises by the United States and South Korea to be suspended. Historically, Pyongyang characterized such drills as a precursor to invasion.

Therefore, Manning views the cancellation of the exercises as a major concession to North Korea, "because alliances are based on the ability to fight together, [if] you don't exercise together, you don't fight together. So it really erodes the [US-ROK] Alliance."

Park Won Gon, Dean of International Affairs at Handong Global University told VOA the cancellations will have an effect on regional security.

Park explains that’s because Key Resolve consisted of two stages, "first defeat [the enemy] and second, mount a counterattack… cutting the exercise to a week in length, means it drops the counterattack portion from the whole process."

Because Foal Eagle is a field training exercise, the amended operation plan reduces the number of troops involved. Park asserts the replacement exercise may not be able to "cover the potential situations should war occur on the Korean peninsula."

He said that while canceling land-based drills may affect the combined forces’ ability to effectively practice with one another, it was more important for exercises with the Air Forces to continue.

"If they are not having exercises such as Max Thunder or Vigilant ACE, then it means they give up the joint military readiness posture," said Park.

Replacement exercises

As the cancellation announcement about Key Resolve and Foal Eagle was made, the Republic of Korea and the United States Combined Forces Command said it will conduct the exercise "Dong Maeng" March 4-12 as a replacement for the two.

In a press release, the Combined Forces Command (CFC) characterized the exercise as one “that highlights the longstanding and enduring partnership and friendship between the two nations and their commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea and regional stability.”

The statement went on further to announce the exercise had “been modified from the previously held spring exercises Key Resolve and Foal Eagle and will focus on focus on strategic, operational, and tactical aspects of general military operations on the Korean Peninsula.”

"Exercise Dong Maeng provides us the opportunity to train and rehearse with our Republic of Korea, United States, and United Nations Sending State Partners," said the South Korean Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Park Han-Ki and CFC Commander, Gen. Robert B. Abrams in the release.

"It is important for professional armies to train and maintain to a standard of readiness. These exercises are crucial in sustaining and strengthening the alliance," the statement concluded.

Lee Ju-hyun and Ira Mellman contributed to this report.

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    Steve Miller

    Steve Miller is a veteran broadcast journalist with over a decade of experience. He is currently the Executive Producer of VOA's audio programs including its long-form podcasts and hourly 5-minute newscasts. Before joining VOA in 2016, Steve covered the Indo-Pacific region while living in South Korea, where he explored the region's rich history and culture while reporting on geopolitics, human rights, and tourism.