U.S. President Donald Trump promised to end “war games” with South Korea, calling them provocative, after meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un earlier this week. His announcement appeared to catch both South Korea and the Pentagon by surprise. A brief explanation of the military exercises:
The U.S. and South Korea hold major joint exercises every spring and summer in South Korea.
The spring maneuvers – actually two overlapping exercises called Key Resolve and Foal Eagle – include live-fire drills with tanks, aircraft and warships. About 10,000 American and 200,000 Korean troops usually take part. The drills typically begin in March but were delayed until April this year to encourage North Korean participation in the South Korean Winter Olympics.
The summer exercise, Ulchi Freedom Guardian, consists mainly of computer simulations to hone joint decision-making and planning. Some 17,500 American and 50,000 South Korean troops participated last year. The drill, held since the 1970s, usually takes place in August. Trump’s pledge has thrown its fate into question this year.
A major goal is to ensure that the two militaries can work together smoothly and seamlessly in a sudden crisis, from top commanders to troops in the field. Moon Seong Mook, a former South Korean military official, calls the joint drills and the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea the core of the alliance between the two countries. He says the American military presence “wouldn’t mean much if the militaries don’t practice through joint drills.”
“We will be stopping the war games, which will save us a tremendous amount of money, unless and until we see the future negotiation is not going along like it should,” Trump told reporters after his meeting Tuesday with Kim in Singapore. “But we’ll be saving a tremendous amount of money. Plus, I think it’s very provocative.”
Depends on your point of view. North Korea portrays the exercises as rehearsals for an invasion of its country. The U.S. and South Korea, at least until Trump’s statement, have said the drills are purely defensive, to be ready at a moment’s notice if the North were to attack the South. The U.S. has sent B-1B aircraft from an Air Force base in Guam on bombing runs over South Korean ranges, sometimes as a show of force after North Korean missile tests. The U.S. and its allies routinely call the missile tests “provocations.”
In 2016, North Korea reacted angrily after South Korean media reported that the allies were planning to include training for a “beheading operation” aimed at removing Kim Jong Un and toppling his government in the event of war in that year’s Key Resolve-Foal Eagle exercises.
The North Korean army’s Supreme Command issued a statement saying a decapitation plan would be the “height of hostile acts” and that the North’s weaponry is “ready to open fire.” Washington and Seoul did not say outright that their troops would be training for decapitation strikes.
The biggest victor if the U.S. were to halt joint exercises with South Korea may be China. The Chinese military is expanding its reach into the Pacific and sees the U.S. as a rival in waters it considers its own. China has long called for a halt to both North Korean missile tests and U.S.-South Korean military drills as a precursor to talks on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.