WASHINGTON — The Pentagon pulled the plug on top-shelf military exercises with South Korea, saying the need for diplomacy with North Korea overrode military readiness.
In a Saturday night email to the media — one of the dead zone times for media releases — the Pentagon said the decision was made during a Saturday phone call between Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and South Korean Minister of National Defense Jeong Kyeong-doo.
The U.S. move was unilateral, as North Korea did not initiate nor announce any reciprocal gesture.
Just two weeks ago, the top U.S. commander in Korea said he was planning to hold the exercises.
Canceled are the spring exercises Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, which overlap. They are to be replaced by a new exercise that is small in scope called Done Maeng — which means “alliance” in Korean, the Pentagon said. That exercise is to begin in about 10 days, the Pentagon said.
“The Minister and Secretary made clear that the Alliance decision to adapt our training program reflected our desire to reduce tension and support our diplomatic efforts to achieve complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a final, fully verified manner,” the Pentagon statement said.
“Both the Minister and Secretary agreed that close coordination between the military activities of the United States and the Republic of Korea will continue to support diplomatic efforts,” the statement said.
The announcement came two days after President Donald Trump abruptly ended his summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un over the issue of economic sanctions relief for North Korean in exchange for freezing nuclear weapons production.
Elements of the cancellations were first reported Friday by NBC News.
Since last year, the Pentagon has canceled the major tier-one exercise Ulchi Freedom Guardian, a two-week event that consists predominantly of computer-simulated defense drills held in August; two Korean Marine Exchange Program training exercises scheduled for last fall, and Vigilant Ace, the major end-of-the-year exercise.
The last major exercise to occur was in May 2018, called Max Thunder. It had been reduced in scope, however.
Foal Eagle is a field exercise while Key Resolve is a computer-simulated desktop exercise. Both Key Resolve and Foal Eagle have involved up to 300,000 troops from the U.S. and South Korea in past years, according to the Pentagon.
The exercises were delayed last year in order to permit South Korea to hold the winter Olympics without interference from the military training.
On Feb. 12, Gen. Robert Abrams, U.S. and U.N. Korea commander, told Congress that North Korea has not slowed down nor reduced its military abilities and attributes even though it has made progress in negotiations with South Korea.
He also said that while U.S. and South Korean forces have altered large-scale military exercises as goodwill gestures, North Korea has not.
“Despite a reduction in tensions along the DMZ (demilitarized zone) and a cessation of strategic provocations coupled with public statements of intent to denuclearize, little to no verifiable changes occurred in North Korea’s military capabilities,” Abrams told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Abrams also said that the reduction in the scope of U.S.-South Korean military exercises has not diminished the capability of the forces that would confront North Korea.
“We are continuing to train, conducting combined training and exercises with our ROK (South Korean) counterparts,” he said. “That is continuing unabated.”
Abrams said then that he was planning for the annual Foal Eagle exercise.
Last September, Abrams told the same committee that because of the cancellations, “I think that there was certainly degradation to the readiness of the force.”