U.S. and South Korea suspend joint military exercise in move likely to stoke concern in Japan

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

The Pentagon said Monday that the United States had agreed with South Korea to halt the Ulchi Freedom Guardian “war game” in August, in a move analysts said would stoke concern in Tokyo.

South Korea’s Defense Ministry had earlier in the day announced the suspension, following U.S. President Donald Trump’s pledge last week to end the joint exercises after his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

“Following close cooperation, South Korea and the U.S. decided to suspend all planning activities for the UFG, the defensive exercise slated for August,” that statement said. “The South and the U.S. plan to continue consultations over additional measures.”

The ministry also said that there is no decision yet regarding other allied training exercises.

The Pentagon said there would be a meeting between the secretaries of defense and state as well as Trump’s national security adviser on the issue later this week.

“We are still coordinating additional actions. No decisions on subsequent war games have been made,” Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said.

“There is no impact on Pacific exercises outside of the Korean Peninsula,” she added.

Trump unveiled his plan to halt the “provocative, inappropriate and expensive” joint exercises at a news conference immediately after the landmark summit in Singapore on June 12. North Korea has blasted the drills as a rehearsal for invasion.

The annual “command-and-control exercise” is mostly focused on computer simulations and saw 17,500 American and more than 50,000 South Korean troops participate last year. Each spring, the U.S. and South also conduct the Foal Eagle and Max Thunder drills, which both wrapped up last month.

At the Singapore summit, Trump and Kim agreed in a vaguely worded statement to work “towards the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” while committing to a “lasting and stable peace.”

Trump has said this will be a “process,” and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last week that Washington hoped to achieve “major disarmament” by North Korea within the next 2½ years, within Trump’s current presidential term, which ends on Jan. 20, 2021.

The White House said Monday that the joint exercises are expected to be “on pause” amid the current climate of detente.

“Those conversations are ongoing at this point. As long as North Korea continues to act in good faith, then we expect those things to be on pause,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was quoted as saying.

Trump has faced criticism from some over his decision to halt the joint drills, as well as over the results of his summit with Kim.

On Saturday, he wrote on Twitter that the drills could “start up immediately if talks break down, which I hope will not happen!” while also claiming that the summit agreement “is being praised and celebrated all over Asia.”

But last week, news of the decision to halt the drills left officials in Tokyo girding for the worst, with Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera calling joint exercises and the U.S. military presence in South Korea “vital” to East Asian security.

On Tuesday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga reiterated the government’s line that there would be no changes to joint drill plans between the United States and Japan, both of which also engage in regular deterrent exercises against North Korea.

“The United States is in a position to keep its commitment to its allied nations’ defense and our understanding is there is no change to the U.S. commitment to the Japan-U.S. alliance and the structure of American troops stationed in Japan,” Suga was quoted as saying.

However, Kyodo News quoted senior Japanese government officials as saying that they remain concerned that the drill suspension could weaken the deterrence effect provided by the U.S.

Japanese defense authorities believe that regular military drills between South Korea and the U.S. have exerted effective pressure on North Korea.

“Since the summit, North Korea has done nothing,” a senior Defense Ministry official said on condition of anonymity. “The announced suspension does not fit with the consideration that should be given (to Pyongyang).”

Kyodo also reported that there are also some concerns within the Defense Ministry that Trump’s willingness to reduce U.S. troop levels in South Korea in the future could alter the military balance in Northeast Asia.

J. Berkshire Miller, a senior visiting fellow with the Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo, said the decision to cancel the exercise “further ramps up anxieties in Japan that the Trump administration is willing to favor a transactional approach on national security issues, rather than deferring to alliance coordination.”

He said the announcement is “especially concerning” for Tokyo “because of the incendiary language that Trump has used by describing the exercises as ‘provocative’ and ‘expensive.’ ”

“Trump’s language on the war games reemphasizes concerns in Japan that Trump views alliances in the region as a financial and security burden, rather than an essential component to U.S. Asia policy and regional stability,” Miller added.

He said China was “the big winner” after the cancellation, noting that it has long sought to dislodge or diminish the U.S. military presence in Asia.

“The direct result is a less threatening U.S. military footprint and alliance structure in Beijing’s backyard,” Miller said.