The Department of Defense (DOD) announced on Saturday that the United States and South Korea are ending major combined military training exercises and replacing them with smaller-scale command post exercises and field training programs. This decision follows the failure of the Hanoi Summit and President Trump’s subsequent complaints regarding the cost of combined military exercises with South Korea. U.S. and South Korean military leaders are making a good faith effort to create space for diplomacy with North Korea, while minimizing damage to military readiness.
According to DOD, acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan and Republic of Korea (ROK) Minister of National Defense Jeong Kyeong-doo approved the recommendation of the commander of the ROK/U.S. Combined Forces Command and the ROK chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to end the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle combined exercises. DOD noted that the decision reflected a “desire to reduce tension and support our diplomatic efforts to achieve complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a final, fully verified manner.”
On Sunday, the U.S. and South Korea announced that a new Dong Maeng (“Alliance”) exercise would replace Key Resolve. Only time will tell whether this weekend’s decisions represent a shrewd reconfiguration of exercises that achieve similar readiness results or a shortsighted reduction in the quality of military training. If the latter, it could increase the likelihood of North Korean aggression, as well as the likelihood of unnecessary U.S. and South Korean casualties if hostilities erupt. It could also reduce U.S. diplomatic leverage at the negotiating table.
The U.S. and ROK have conducted large-scale combined exercises for many years, including Key Resolve, Foal Eagle, and Ulchi Freedom Guardian. The U.S. and ROK governments agreed to suspend the Ulchi Freedom Guardian last year to support diplomatic efforts to achieve the denuclearization of North Korea.
The cancelled exercises have played a vital role in maintaining the military readiness of U.S. and South Korean military forces. In February 2016 testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, then-Commander of the ROK/U.S. Combined Forces Command General Curtis Scaparrotti said these exercises “provide realistic scenarios that prepare our forces … to deter and defeat North Korean aggression and potential instability in the region.” He called these exercises “essential in improving ROK-U.S. crisis management, combat readiness, and interoperability.”
Meanwhile, according to testimony last month by the current commander, General Robert Abrams, North Korea has continued individual and unit military training exercises unabated. According to Abrams, the North Korean army commenced its winter training as it has for the last five years with more than one million soldiers involved.
Up to this point, the suspension of military exercises has not facilitated any progress toward denuclearization by Pyongyang. Furthermore, North Korea continues its proliferation of nuclear fissile material and ballistic missiles. There has also been no reduction in the North Korean conventional threat, as its forces remain postured for offensive operations.
U.S. and South Korean military leaders are seeking to make the best of a difficult situation – supporting diplomatic efforts while trying to minimize any degradation to military readiness. The U.S. and ROK should continually assess whether the new exercises and programs will accomplish both objectives.
Bradley Bowman is the senior director of FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). David Maxwell, a 30-year veteran of the United States Army and a retired Special Forces colonel, is a senior fellow at FDD and Mathew Ha is a research associate, and both contribute to CMPP. Follow them on Twitter @Brad_L_Bowman, @DavidMaxwell161, and @MatJunsuk. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.