23.06.2018 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Will the USA and South Korea Cancel Joint Exercises?


As the audience remembers, at a press conference after the summit with the leader of DPRK in Singapore Donald Trump told that the USA will stop the military exercises held together with South Korea. “We will stop war games,” the US President said, having called them “provocative” and “extremely expensive.”

Let us remind you that every year the USA and South Korea hold large joint exercises: in spring – Foal Eagle and Key Resolve (held since 2001), in autumn – Ulchi Freedom Guardian (held since 1976). Carrier strike groups, strategic bombers from Guam base, ‘invisible fighters’, atomic submarines and other offensive arms are regularly involved in them. It is not by chance that the Russian and Chinese experts paid attention that these actions of Washington and Seoul increase tension and are provocative not less, than North Korean missile launches and nuclear tests.

North Korea especially opposed exercises, claiming that it was preparation for invasion, and indicating that there were scenarios of landing of troops in North Korea, capture of Pyongyang, bombing of key infrastructure facilities and special operation on liquidation of the senior leadership of DPRK up to Kim Jong-un, worked out with a vengeance on the maneuvers.

Perhaps, a part of audience does not fully understand the sheer scope of these actions and their orientation. Just a simple example: 13…17 thousand people took part in the joint Russian-Belarusian exercises Zapad-2017 (West-2017), and they weren’t an annual event. Nevertheless, a number of European countries were absolutely outraged, having perceived these maneuvers as training of aggressive actions aimed at annexation of territories of the adjacent countries. Meanwhile, nearly 50 thousand people, that is 3 times more, took part in the smallest of the exercises which were to be reduced!

And these are only the largest exercises: together with smaller and secondary (for example, maneuvers of the Air Force of two countries) there are from 10 to 20 maneuvers a year depending on the situation.

No wonder, that the peninsula was shaken by the duty aggravation in March – April and July – August every year. The Northerners were asking to stop, the Southerners were saying that exercises were an internal affair of the country and they might train anything they wanted; then the parties exchanged bellicose statements of the type “just try and make any provocative act and we (no, we!) will smash you apart”; afterwards the exercises took place amidst the counter threatening gestures of DPRK being sure that only through such a tough stand had they managed to stop hostile encroachments once again.

Against the background of the inter-Korean thaw it has been stated that DPRK will treat exercises ‘understandingly’, and, as a reply, the spring maneuvers of 2018 have taken place after the Olympic truce and were cut down a little, without engagement of strategic forces. Though during the inter-Korean summit on April 27 the North Korean leader did not make a claim concerning military exercises, after completion of Max Thunder maneuvers (in which, on the contrary, strategic forces were involved) DPRK has cancelled the inter-Korean high level meeting scheduled for May 16. Besides, on June 1 Pyongyang criticized Seoul for participation in the international RIMPAC maneuvers, and in two days the criticism concerning the exercises Ulchi Freedom Guardian followed.

As a result, on June 2 Ministers of Defense of South Korea and the USA the Song Young-moo and James Mattis met at the 17th Asia Security Summit in Singapore and have come to a consensus on need to support the diplomatic efforts of two countries aimed at denuclearization of the North Korea. The less intensive forthcoming exercises with lower intensity were to become the first step in this direction. This is important as talks on decreasing the scale of exercises were even before the Trump’s statement which could not be called a sudden one.

And so, the U.S. President declares a possibility of suspension, the Japanese express misunderstanding and bewilderment, and the South Koreans, making the best of a bad bargain, snap a salute. On June 14, speaking at the meeting of National Security Council of South Korea, President Moon Jae-in said that suspension of exercises will become possible only if Pyongyang takes real steps to the denuclearization according to the Panmunjom Declaration.

On the same day Ministers of Defense of South Korea and the USA, Song Young-moo and James Mattis, had an ‘in-depth discussion’ on the matter of holding the joint military exercises including Ulchi Freedom Guardian planned for August and decided to discuss the issues related to joint exercises as soon as possible during the personal meeting.    Song Young-moo noted the need to demonstrate flexibility regarding the military pressure upon Pyongyang according to the joint declaration adopted on April 27 following the results of the inter-Korean Summit.

On June 14 at US Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs hearings this need to suspend the joint military exercises of South Korea and the USA was also noted by Harry Harris appointed to the position of the US Ambassador in Seoul. According to Harris, the situation on the Korean peninsula has changed in many respects, and it is necessary to stop temporarily the joint exercises to learn about seriousness of intentions of Pyongyang. However, Harris also noted that only strengthening of sanctions by the USA and the UN had forced the North Korean leader to sit down at the negotiating table and it was early to calm down for the countries involved.

In an interview with journalists on June 15 Donald Trump admitted that it was his offer to suspend the maneuvers. He noted also that from the first day as the President he wanted to end the military exercises as the USA pays “millions and millions of Dollars” for war games which also “set a bad light during a good faith negotiations” with Pyongyang.

As some sources in the Ministry of Defense of South Korea have reported, a possibility to cancel or suspend for an indefinite term all three large-scale maneuvers – Ulchi-Freedom Guardian, Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, is actively discussed. While Trump is holding active negotiations with DPRK, there will be no large exercises of the USA and South Korea. However, maneuvers of the U.S. Air Force and South Korean Vigilant Ace and Max Thunder won’t stop; and the supposed agreement between Washington and Seoul will contain a provision according to which in case Pyongyang fails the denuclearization obligations the exercises will be resumed.

However, for this author the issue is not completely resolved yet. So far the Trump’s statements have not been anything like “I have made the decision,” but rather “it would be good if” as military have not received any precise and clear instructions. However, the emphasis is on ‘so far’, and the author considers it quite probable that the scale of exercises and their number will be significantly reduced. There are several reasons for that.

The first is the politics. Holding exercises has always been perceived as the pressuring act; and consiering the inter-Korean dialogue it was clear to Trump that if the process had been started, the main issue is ‘not to scare away’ and not to give to the North a reason to get insulted and slam the door. Besides, the American President understands that although the military solution is not removed from the table, it might cost too much.

And then, cancellation of exercises is a reversible action. If desired there will always be something to carp to and resume them.

The second is the finances. Large-scale exercise costs much, and the American budget is not that flexible; especially as Trump looks at many things not only as a politician, but also as a businessman. As one of the author’s acquaintances used to say: “where a politician looks at risks, a businessman looks at profit.” And from this point of view the existing scope of exercises is not financially justified. Besides, political course of Trump may be called isolationist to a certain degree. He is pleased to leave the unnecessary and unprofitable alliances; and here we are coming to the third reason, which may be related to the US-South Korean relations.

Friendship is one thing and business is another; and on many occasions has Trump repeated that security should be paid for, and economic relations should not be at a loss. In this context, one may also pay attention to the negotiations on who and how much has to pay for keeping the American troops in South Korea, and on some other similar discussions. Meanwhile, it seems, that Trump has got used to solving issues in the vein of ‘if you don’t want to pay for this service, you do not actually need it’. Especially since, aside from strategic objects like THAAD, the American troops in South Korea are more of symbolical, psychological and motivating value. South Korea, with its army being number six or seven in the world in terms of its number and military budget twenty five times surpassing the Northern one, is quite capable of protecting itself.

Yes, Syngman Rhee’s ‘puppet army’ could only slaughter civilians and scatter away in all other cases; and in many respects the Mutual Defense Treaty was signed to prevent that ‘Messiah of the Korean people’ from starting yet another war with the North. However, already at Park Chung-hee time the situation has changed for the better, and many things are just anachronistic and Trump sees that well.

Thus, there are real prerequisites for downscaling the military activity; and it is a very important card within the strategy ‘action against the action’, which may really help with derogation of regional tension, and in the long term in the peninsula denuclearization as well. Besides, though this term would hardly be pronounced by the US President, de facto Donald Trump acts within the Russian-Chinese ‘double freeze’ plan where reduction of provocative activity, and, first of all, of military exercises, had to become the American part of the deal and the reply to the nuclear missile moratorium of Pyongyang. Even if the situation would stop there and going further the parties would only talk about how they strive to denuclearization, such mutual reduction of military activity is a very good intermediate success.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”