Asia Pacific

Pentagon says U.S. will ‘indefinitely’ halt ‘select’ military exercises with South Korea as talks with North progress

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

The U.S. Defense Department announced Friday that it had “indefinitely suspended select” military exercises with South Korea less than two weeks after President Donald Trump’s historic meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore.

“To support implementing the outcomes of the Singapore Summit, and in coordination with our Republic of Korea ally, Secretary Mattis has indefinitely suspended select exercises,” Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said in a statement referring to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. “This includes suspending FREEDOM GUARDIAN along with two Korean Marine Exchange Program training exercises scheduled to occur in the next three months.

The statement left the door open to further suspensions of joint exercises, as talks with Pyongyang progress and as speculation grows that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will make his third visit to the North in the coming week.

“In support of upcoming diplomatic negotiations led by Secretary Pompeo, additional decisions will depend upon the DPRK continuing to have productive negotiations in good faith,” the statement said, using the acronym for the North’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The decision was reached after Mattis, Pompeo, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford, and national security adviser John Bolton met to discuss efforts to implement the results of the Singapore meeting, the statement added.

The North has repeatedly called for an end to the joint exercises, blasting them as a rehearsal for invasion.

The Korean Marine Exchange Program training exercises are part of the Okinawa-based III Marine Expeditionary Force’s “dedicated effort to learning and sharing tactics” with South Korean Marine Corps, according to the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. It said the exercises focus on “building personal, enduring relationships” and becoming “more proficient partners.”

Trump abruptly said that he would halt “provocative” U.S.-South Korean “war games” after his summit with Kim on June 12. The decision was formally announced by the Pentagon on Monday. South Korea’s Defense Ministry simultaneously confirmed the suspension of the Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercises. Last year, 17,500 U.S. troops and more than 50,000 South Korean troops joined those drills, although the exercise is mostly focused on computerized simulations rather than field exercises.

The decision, which apparently came without consultations with Seoul or the Pentagon, surprised many in South Korea and the United States who see training as a central pillar of their countries’ decadeslong military alliance dating to the 1950-53 Korean War.

The move has also alarmed Tokyo, which fears the decision could weaken the regional deterrence effect provided by the U.S. military.