Post-Trump-Kim summit fiasco, the security dynamics in the Korean Peninsula has taken suddenly a different turn with the announcement by the US and South Korea on 3 March 2019 to end the annual large-scale joint military exercises as part of diplomatic efforts to “achieve complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula”.
The Key Resolve and Foal Eagle series of exercise have been seen as an important element in the security calculus of both the US and South Korea and ending announcement opens a new Pandora box in the region’s security matrix. Foal Eagle is the biggest of the regular joint exercises held by the allies, and has always infuriated Pyongyang. In the past, it has involved 200,000 South Korean forces and some 30,000 US soldiers. It is accompanied by Key Resolve, a computer-simulated war game conducted by military commanders which usually begins in March and runs for about 10 days. Now the allies agreed to carry out “adjusted outside manoeuvre trainings and united command exercises to continue firm military readiness”.
Security analysts try to unravel the compelling reasons behind this decision just three days after the second summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader in Hanoi ended without an agreement to resolve North Korea’s nuclear issue. Is it a new carrot offered to Pyongyang as it has denounced the US-South Korea joint exercises as aggressive provocations and rehearsals for war?
Two reasons can be made for this important decision. One is to send a good-faith message to the North to keep nuclear talks alive following the failed Hanoi summit, and second is to address Trump’s concern about the high cost of these massive demonstrations of force. This is not the first time the annual joint drills have been tweaked. Conducted every Spring, it was postponed for the first time in 2018 to facilitate North Korea’s peaceful participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics held in South Korea.
Trump has been quite wary about the mounting cost of the exercises and was seriously thinking to review, overlooking what implications the decision would have on the security of the region. The failure of the Hanoi summit provided the right opportunity for him to announce the decision. An advocate of “America First” policy and determined to rewrite many of the accepted rules governing relations among nations, Trump was not averse to be critical of the cost of these joint exercises that involve thousands of troops, fighter jets, warships and other military assets from US bases around the world. Trump is seized of the matter that the military exercises costs $100 million every time it engages in and therefore decided to replace the large-scale drills with a series of smaller exercises and training and technology based virtual exercises instead of deploying thousands of actual troops for the war games.
Though Trump has repeatedly complained about the large-scale exercises, arguing that these are too costly and therefore the US would be unwilling to bear such huge financial burden, defenders say the training is relatively cheap, noting estimates that a separate Korea exercise staged by the Pentagon cost only $14 million a year.
Following the first summit in Singapore in June 2018, Trump sprang a surprise by announcing suspension of the allies’ summertime military drills and called Ulchi Freedom Guardian drills — largely computer-simulated war games — “very provocative” and “massively expensive.” Trump has, however, ruled out withdrawing any of the 28,500 US forces based in South Korea to defend it from nuclear-armed neighbour, which invaded in 1950. Though South Korea under President Moon Jae-in is persevering hard for a breakthrough on the nuclear issue joined Trump to downsize the exercise, Japan was clearly uncomfortable as it is wary of North Korea’s intentions. Notwithstanding Moon’s optimism, there could be an overwhelming opinion inside South Korea and Japan that extending this olive branch to North Korea could be cause for worry about maintaining their readiness in the event that military tensions erupt again in the wake of the failed Hanoi summit.
Critics say that scrapping the drills could impact the combat readiness of the combined forces and hand North Korea a strategic advantage. There are others who disagree, however. Ahn Chan-il, the president of the World Institute for North Korea in Seoul opines that suspending or downsizing the drills may hurt the readiness of the two militaries. Since the first summit between Trump and Kim in June 2018, in which both leaders signed a vaguely-worded commitment to denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, both sides have scaled back or scrapped several joint military drills, and US bombers are no longer flying over South Korea. Professor Yang Moo-jin of the University of North Korean Studies is of the opinion that “not downgrading or suspending the drills at this point … would mean the involved countries are not serious” about reaching a denuclearisation accord.
The new arrangement agreed upon has provision for new training in smaller drills, tabletop exercises and simulations, and will involve smaller units, such as battalions and companies rather than massive formations involving thousands of troops, as they had in the past. The Pentagon will now focus on smaller exercises and mission essential tasks, which include the ability to integrate airstrikes and the use of other weapons systems, drones, surveillance assets, logistics, and communications. Before resigning as defence secretary in November 2018, Jim Mattis had said that it would be a reorganization of the exercises, not an end to maneuvers on the Peninsula.
Though the cancellation announcement of the drills was expected to form a part of the summit agreement, Trump went ahead to announce cancellation despite the lack of a summit deal. The decision to proceed with the cancellation after a failed summit looked bad but there could have been a possibility that it was agreed separately and no one could imagine how that decision would be interpreted if Hanoi failed, which in fact happened that way, hence various interpretation and opinions doing the round. This, notwithstanding North Korea’s Kim making little change to his threatening military posture since Trump and he first met in June 2018 in Singapore.
Though its equipment is increasingly outdated, Pyongyang maintains one of the largest conventional militaries in the world, along with a stockpile of nuclear weapons. Those who argue on the continuance of the military drills argue that North Korea has the capabilities to hold the US, South Korea and Japan at risk and therefore it is necessary to maintain a postured and ready force to deter any possible aggressive actions.
In 2018, four separate exercises were conducted from early April to late May, including Foal Eagle, which involved 11,500 US and 290,000 South Korean troops. It was followed by Key Resolve, which used a computer simulation of a possible attack by North Korea to improve headquarters command and control. Those were followed by Warrior Strike and Max Thunder. Max Thunder is an Air Force exercise that has in the past involved sending US bombers from Guam to South Korean airspace. In fact, Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises were themselves started in 1994 as a smaller-scale replacement for another set of major drills known as Team Spirit.
In his effort to diplomatic outreach to North Korea, the Bill Clinton administration started the drills in small scale but when that effort collapsed, new manoeuvres steadily grew. This further strained relations with North Korea. Subsequent weaponisation by North Korea only exacerbated tensions and drills started taking place in close consultation with South Korea. If no rapprochement takes place between Trump and Kim, the latter would continue to hate whatever comes next just as North Korea hated then Team Spirit and then Key Resolve/Foal Eagle.
The unpredictable Trump wants to save hundreds of millions of dollars which South Korea “never reimbursed”. He cites this as the reason for halting war games. The war games have always angered North Korea, which usually responds with its own military exercises. Though Hanoi summit collapsed, National Security Advisor John Bolton claimed that it was not a failure, justifying that Trump was not desperate for a deal if that does not serve the US interests. According to Bolton, the summit helped deepen Trump’s relationship with Kim. On his part, Trump defended his decision to end war games as not a concession to Kim.
Military experts worry about the impact that the ending of war games would have for the security of the Korean Peninsula and the region. Trump’s decision could erode US position in Northeast Asia. The reasoning is that alliances are based on the ability to fight together and not exercising together would mean not willing to fight together, which is why the alliance is eroded somewhat. In whatever way one would see, the cancellation announcement would have an impact on regional security.
Soon after the cancellation announcement of Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, the Combined Forces Command of the US and South Korea came up with the announcement that both would conduct the exercise “Dong Maeng” on 4-12 March as a replacement for the two. These would focus on strategic, operational, and tactical aspects of general military operations on the Korean Peninsula. Both hope that these exercises would sustain and strengthen the alliance.
Views expressed are personal