Jun 12, 2018, 5:56 PM ET

Trump's pledge to stop 'war games' with South Korea throws critical exercises into question


The biggest surprise to emerge from President Donald Trump's summit with North Korea's Kim Jong Un in Singapore was not included in the final agreement: Trump's pledge to stop U.S. military exercises routinely held with South Korea. Trump's pledge has drawn criticism as giving North Korea too much in return for vague promises. It remains unclear what impact Trump's announcement will have on planning for the next big exercise slated to begin in August.

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PHOTO: A U.S. F-22 Raptor stealth fighter jet lands as South Korea and the U.S. conduct the Max Thunder joint military exercise at an air base in Gwangju, South Korea, May 16, 2018.Park Chul-hog/Yonhap via AP
A U.S. F-22 Raptor stealth fighter jet lands as South Korea and the U.S. conduct the Max Thunder joint military exercise at an air base in Gwangju, South Korea, May 16, 2018.

The Pentagon has consistently labeled the annual large-scale exercises as defensive in nature and crucial to maintaining the readiness of both American and South Korean troops to fight back any military aggression from North Korea.

But Trump's announcement raised questions about when the exercises will stop and whether the military forces of both countries will be able to maintain their ability to fight without them.

President Trump cited the high costs of the large-scale exercises as one reason why he was stopping them and surprisingly called them "very provocative," a complaint often made by North Korea.

As reports emerged that the South Korean government was surprised by the announcement to suspend exercises, questions were raised if U.S. policymakers were also caught off guard.

But the Pentagon said Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was consulted beforehand about the president's announcement.

PHOTO: In this file photo, members of the Republic of Korea (ROK) Navy Underwater Dive Team prepare for an explosive ordnance disposal exercise off the coast of Jinhae, South Korea, March 3, 2017, as part of exercise Foal Eagle 2017.Alfred A. Coffield/U.S. Navy Combat Camera/Handout via Reuters, FILE
In this file photo, members of the Republic of Korea (ROK) Navy Underwater Dive Team prepare for an explosive ordnance disposal exercise off the coast of Jinhae, South Korea, March 3, 2017, as part of exercise Foal Eagle 2017.

“There were no surprises, they had spoken on all of these issues in advance,” Dana White, the chief Pentagon spokesperson told ABC News.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military command in South Korea said it was proceeding with planning for Ulchi Freedom Guardian, the next major exercise, that will begin in August.

"We have not received any updated guidance about have received no updated guidance on execution or cessation of training exercises - to include Ulchi Freedom Guardian," said Colonel Chad Carroll, a spokesman for U.S. Forces Korea. "In coordination with our ROK partners, we will continue with our current military posture until we receive updated guidance from the Department of Defense (DoD) and/or Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM).”

"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 said at a news conference in Singapore. "But we'll be saving a tremendous amount of money, plus, I think it's very provocative."

Pentagon officials could not provide details about the costs of the previous exercises that President Trump had complained about.

The 28,500 American troops permanently stationed in South Korea participate year round in a variety of air, ground and sea exercises with the South Korean military.

The exercises focus on ways that the U.S. and South Korea could repel a North Korean attack at a moment's notice, a commitment reflected in U.S. Forces Korea's motto of "Fight Tonight."

But there are several large-scale exercises that involve larger numbers of troops and conflict scenarios.

The most well-known of the annual exercises is "Foal Eagle" an umbrella term for a variety of smaller exercises held for two months each spring throughout South Korea. Sometimes American forces are sent to South Korea to participate in the exercises.

This year's edition of the exercise was delayed until after the conclusion of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in South Korea.

Surprisingly in his initial offer to meet with President Trump, Kim Jong Un backtracked on decades of North Korean complaints about Foal Eagle exercises.

Kim "understands that the routine joint military exercises between the Republic of Korea and the United States must continue," South Korean national security adviser Chung Eui-Yong told reporters during his March 8 to Washington when Trump agreed to meet with the North Korean leader.

The exercise kicked off in April, but in a much less public fashion than previous years given the backdrop of the potential for a warming in U.S. and North Korean relations.

Despite the lower profile the U.S. and South Korea continued with planned large-scale exercises including an amphibious landing by U.S. Marines on a beach southwest of Seoul and long-range bomber aircraft stationed in Guam that flew training missions to South Korea.

Sometimes the joint exercises are virtual in nature even though they still involve thousands of troops.

For example, the next big one will be Ulchi Freedom Guardian a largely computer-based exercise that last year involved 17,000 American troops.

Last year's exercise was also held at a time of heightened tensions raised by President Trump's "fire and fury" comments that in turn drew bellicose rhetoric from North Korea.

It remains unclear when an announcement will be made about the future of this year's exercise.

Given the high level of readiness that both the U.S. and South Korean militaries always operate under it's possible the lack of exercises may not have a lasting impact on readiness.

"The President is taking a bit of a risk by halting the U.S.-South Korean military exercises," said Steve Ganyard, an ABC News contributor. "But, these exercises can be turned on very quickly."

But others think it will have a significant impact, including Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, who said it "appears to concede U.S. military readiness in exchange for a vague open-ended denuclearization pledge from North Korea, plus additional talks."

"The exercises that the United States conducts with allies and partners on and around the Korean Peninsula are invaluable tools for maintaining the readiness to respond to potential North Korean aggression," said Smith, who also raised concerns that Trump labeled them provocative and apparently did not consult South Korea's government in advance.

"The Department of Defense welcomes the positive news coming out of the summit and fully supports the ongoing, diplomatically-led efforts with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea," said White, the Pentagon spokesperson, in a statement.

"Our alliances remain ironclad, and ensure peace and stability in the region," she added. The Presidential summit outcome is the first step along the path to the goal: complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and a free and open Indo-Pacific."

News - Trump's pledge to stop 'war games' with South Korea throws critical exercises into question

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  • DK1

    I can only imagine if Obama had called the military drills with SK "provocative" and "inappropriate"! The right wingers would have attacked him viciously for being "anti-military" and opposed to "ensuring our safety". There is nothing provocative or inappropriate about having DEFENSIVE military drills with a close ally in response to an overtly aggressive and threatening neighboring country. "Provocative" and "inappropriate" applies to NK's actions and words, not anyone else's.

  • subtext9

    When they finally connected by phone, South Korean President Moon Jae-in let Donald Trump know just how upset he was, lamenting: "I thought you said I was your Seoul mate."

  • Wayne Tracker

    trump's dismissive attitude to the subject of preparation for the meeting tells us he went into it with plans to hand north korea plenty of concessions without expecting much in return.

  • mik8888

    Ironically, joint exercises have always been an important method for allied forces to work together, with different equipment and capabilities...in one moment of mouthism, Donald has proposed eliminating an important part of allied readiness...he is always talking about enormous costs, so why doesn't he stop the building of new fangled ships and planes that have proven to not even work as designed...

  • Ron Jones

    @cudagirl: I wouldn't worry about joint exercises being rescinded. As everyone knows, Trumpie will change his mind at some point, and then, IT'S BOMBS AWAY ! But if China gets angry, watch out. Essentially, it will be World War Three, thanks to Donald J. Trump. What a disgraceful leader !

  • cudagirl

    So the "Art Dealer" got his photo op, America got nothing and Kim something he wanted. And Kim got patted on the back for being a "terrific" guy, very smart, just terrific! Since when has Trump ever worried about spending money! So we shut down the exercises and our troops' readiness gets rusty. This is what we get for letting this arrogant fool deal for America! He brags about "he did not have to prepare." Well let me tell you his press conferences after sounded like he did not prepare! What a joke! I feel bad for Otto's parents as I certainly would not want my son's name associated with a photo op and that is all it was!