FILE - A U.S. Army soldier and a South Korean Army soldier take their position during joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States in Pocheon, north of Seoul, South Korea, March 25, 2015.
FILE - A U.S. Army soldier and a South Korean Army soldier take their position during joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States in Pocheon, north of Seoul, South Korea, March 25, 2015.

SEOUL - The commander of United States Forces Korea (USFK) minimized the impact of suspended U.S.-South Korea military exercises on troop readiness on Wednesday, and said the joint drills in recent years were used to pressure North Korea to engage in diplomatic talks.

“Our military actions can be used to increase pressure or decrease pressure. We are an agile instrument in the hands of our political leaders,” said General Vincent Brooks, the Commander of the USFK, the United Nations Command and the Combined Forces Command; the integrated military structure in South Korea that has been in place since the Korean War.

In the past, U.S. military officials insisted that these joint drills were intended to maintain force readiness, and were defensive in nature to deter a possible North Korean attack.

War games

After meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the Singapore Summit in June, U.S. President Donald Trump had characterized the exercises as “war games” and called them “provocative.” Some analysts said Trump’s comments echoed North Korean criticism of the joint exercises as political provocations and rehearsals for war.

At the Singapore Summit, the president also surprised allies in the region when he suspended further joint drills after Kim agreed to work toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

General Brooks would not comment on President Trump’s past criticism of the drills, but said the combined exercises in recent years, that had increased in scale to include over 23,000 U.S. troops and 300,000 South Korea forces, and that often brought in nuclear capable aircraft in a show of military force, were intended to send a political message.

FILE - U.S. aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan anc
U.S. aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan anchors as U.S. Aegis Ship passes after they arrive at Busan port for joint military exercises in Busan, South Korea. The United States and South Korea started joint naval exercises, Nov. 11, 2017.

“I would characterize this as a period of time, where we have successfully used the military instrument to help set up conditions for diplomatic engagement to take root and take effect,” said General Brooks during a press briefing in Seoul.

The joint exercises in the last few years were held at times of heightened tensions as North Korea conducted increasingly threatening ballistic missile and nuclear tests.

Troop readiness

General Brooks said the suspension of the drills would require some “adjustment” and “creativity,” but that military commanders will be able to maintain troop readiness “in perpetuity” without conducting the massive combined military maneuvers. 

But some security analysts have voiced concern that suspending the exercise would have a long-term detrimental impact on the combined forces’ ability to work in unison as new troops are constantly rotating in.

“As the term of (South) Korea military service was shortened to 18 months, if joint military training does not take place during the term, Korean soldiers could face problems,” said Shin Beom-chul, the director of Center for Security and Unification at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

There are currently over 28,000 American military forces stationed in Korea and 620,000 active duty South Koreans serving in the military.

North Korea is estimated to have nearly one million military personnel on active duty and over five million in reserve duty. Despite the disadvantage in numbers of active military, the U.S. allied forces posses more advanced and superior conventional weapons, while analysts say much of the North’s conventional weapons and equipment is old or obsolete.

Peace declaration

General Brooks also expressed both optimism and caution about the progress being made to reduce military tensions with North Korea, and about the difficult nuclear negotiations underway between Washington and Pyongyang.

FILE - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un provides gu
FILE - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un provides guidance on a nuclear weapons program in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang, Sept. 3, 2017.

The USFK commander has been encouraged by some measures taken to reduce to potential for conflict, such as the recent agreement by South and North Korea to pull back their soldiers from guard posts in the demilitarized zone, but he is also worried as to how it might affect the ability to defend the border.

Brooks also voiced concern about increased calls from both Pyongyang and Seoul for a joint peace declaration to replace the 1953 armistice that has been in place since the end of the Korean War in 1953. Critics say a peace declaration could be used to undermine the justification for the U.S. military presence in South Korea

Such a peace statement, he said, should be carefully negotiated to link any change in the current defense posture to overcoming the key obstacle to peace in the region.

“I would be skeptical about any solution that does not have denuclearization in it, and how that can become an enduring peace,’ said Brooks.

The U.S. and North Korea are currently in the initial stage of a long nuclear negotiation process, according to the U.S. General.

Denuclearization talks have stalled over U.S. insistence that sanctions remain in place until North Korea fully dismantles its nuclear arsenal, while North Korea wants a step for step process that would ease economic and trade restrictions in return for incremental progress.

Lee Yoon-jee contributed to this report.