Trump Suspends South Korea `War Games' in Bet Kim Can Be Trusted

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump’s decision to suspend military exercises with South Korea puts a key pillar of the seven-decade-old defense relationship between the countries on hold and fulfills a longstanding desire by both North Korea and China to undermine the U.S. military role in the region.

The U.S. president’s move is a bet that suspending “war games” with Seoul will quickly pay dividends in getting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to take specific, verifiable steps to scale back his nuclear weapons program. Trump’s announcement followed his meeting with Kim in Singapore on Tuesday and was the most concrete development from the summit.

“I believe that he wants to get it done,” Trump said in an interview on ABC News, when asked about Kim’s denuclearization commitment. “I do trust him.”

In tweets from Air Force One as he returned to Washington, Trump wrote that he “got along great” with Kim and that “great progress was made on the denuclearization of North Korea. Hostages are back home, will be getting the remains of our great heroes back to their families, no missiles shot, no research happening, sites closing.”

Long History

North Korea has a long history of reneging on agreements about its nuclear program and the nation remains technically at war the U.S.

As a result, the U.S. has conducted military exercises on the peninsula since the mid-1950s and holds a handful of joint operations with South Korea every year, a means of ensuring the two forces are able to work together in the event of an attack. The annual drills, separate from regular training programs, have long angered North Korea’s leadership, which views them as a rehearsal for an invasion.

Trump echoed that view following the summit, when he announced that the joint exercises would be suspended.

“We’re not going to play the war games” with South Korea, Trump said. “I thought they were very provocative. I also think they’re very expensive.”

Representative Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said Trump appeared to “concede military readiness in exchange for a vague open-ended denuclearization pledge from North Korea.” Smith added in a statement that Trump “supported North Korean propaganda by characterizing the exercises, which have always been defensive in nature, as provocative war games.”

The document the two leaders signed didn’t specifically mention military drills. Instead, it highlighted agreements to establish “new relations” between the countries, work together to recover missing American remains from the Korean War and reaffirm Kim’s commitment to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” although its not clear the two sides agree on what that means.

Former Senator Sam Nunn, co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, called the historic summit -- the first-ever meeting of sitting U.S. and North Korean leaders -- just the “beginning of the beginning” of a long process.

‘Overwhelming Force’

From their side of the border, North Korean officials and military chiefs still see “a very formidable, overwhelming conventional force in the form of the Republic of Korea Army bolstered by the United States, poised on a hair trigger and ready to invade to overthrow the regime,” former U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in an interview last week. “That’s the portrayal, their image.”

Without a peace treaty between the two sides, the roughly 30,000 U.S. troops in South Korea, many of which rotate through on one-year assignments, need continuous training “to ensure that you’re able to fight tonight," according to Alexander Vershbow, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea.

But finding a way to weaken the U.S.-South Korea alliance “has long been a North Korean strategic objective, and some may view suspending military exercises as one key way to do so,” said Kathleen McInnis, a Korean specialist and senior defense strategy analyst at the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

Olympics Delay

A joint exercise earlier this year involving more than 300,000 South Korean and U.S. troops was delayed to accommodate the Winter Olympics and was ultimately abbreviated by two weeks compared to the previous year. Another exercise -- Key Resolve -- followed with more than 12,000 U.S. troops and 10,000 South Korean personnel.

The next big drill on the U.S.-South Korean calendar -- Ulchi Freedom Guardian -- is scheduled for late August. The Pentagon describes it as "a computer-simulated defensive exercise." Last year, it involved about 17,500 U.S. service members, drawing in 3,000 from outside South Korea.

U.S. Forces Korea said in an emailed statement following the summit that it “has received no updated guidance on execution or cessation of training exercises - to include this fall’s schedule Ulchi Freedom Guardian.  In coordination with our ROK partners, we will continue with our current military posture until we receive updated guidance from the Department of Defense and/or Indo-Pacific Command.”

While Trump said his concerns about the exercises stemmed from their price tag, critics saw an unforced concession to two of the U.S.’s major adversaries.

"Kim and China are absolutely aligned in wanting the United States off the Korean peninsula," said Ellen Tauscher, a former Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security now at the Atlantic Council. China and Russia have urged the U.S. to freeze its military drills in exchange for a move by North Korea to halt its ballistic missile and nuclear tests.

David Maxwell, a retired Army Special Forces Colonel who served five tours in Korea from 1986 to 2007, said it may be possible to maintain sufficient training without as many high-profile exercises that draw Pyongyang’s ire.

“A force that does not train is of no value to deterrence,” Maxwell said. But “my recommendation is that we end the ‘named exercises,”’ such as Ulchi Freedom Guardian and Foal Eagle/Key Resolve, he added.

“If we end the ‘named exercises’ and shift to a routine training regimen of a winter and summer training cycle -- just as the North Korean People’s Army conducts -- in which we can conduct sufficient training, that will ensure readiness of the combined forces then we will be OK,” he said.

And if suspending exercises helps generate a breakthrough that makes continued basing of U.S. troops in South Korea less necessary, said retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Daniel L. Davis, a former adviser to the Second Republic of Korea Army in an email, “it would be an exceptional return on investment.”

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