U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis spent the last leg of his weeklong trip to Asia reassuring Japan that Washington remains committed to its defense amid the evolving regional security situation following the historic U.S.-North Korea summit in Singapore on June 12.
But Japan may not be able to take the reassurances at face value, with defense sources and experts pointing to uncertainties hanging over the latest U.S. move to halt military exercises with South Korea in the hope of facilitating talks on North Korea’s denuclearization.
Following talks with his Japanese counterpart, Itsunori Onodera, in Tokyo on Friday, Mattis emphasized at a news conference that the decision to cancel the U.S.-South Korea drills is meant to increase the prospects “for a peaceful solution” on the Korean Peninsula.
“At the same time,” he said, “we maintain a strong collaborative defensive stance to ensure our diplomats continue to negotiate from a position of unquestioned strength.”
However, the Pentagon chief offered few clues on how deterrence capabilities and readiness to deal with contingencies on the peninsula can be maintained without the exercises, which Japan describes as one of the “important pillars” of deterrence in the region.
“What if the suspension of major U.S.-South Korea exercises is not just this once but prolonged? It could undermine the readiness of the U.S. and South Korean forces, affecting them slowly like a body blow,” a senior Self-Defense Forces official said.
President Donald Trump shocked U.S. allies when he abruptly announced after his June 12 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that the United States would be “stopping the war games” with South Korea as long as dialogue continues with Pyongyang, slamming them as “tremendously expensive” and “provocative.”
The U.S. Defense Department followed up with announcements calling off Ulchi Freedom Guardian, a largely computer-simulated command post exercise held every summer, and two more planned in the next three months.
Additional decisions will depend on North Korea “continuing to have productive negotiations in good faith,” the Pentagon said in a statement on June 22, leaving open what to do with other major joint drills conducted every spring — the computer-simulated command post Key Resolve and the Foal Eagle field exercises.
Chung Hun Sup, a professor at Nihon University who has conducted research on U.S. troops in South Korea, said the impact of canceling the exercises should not be underestimated.
“Freedom Guardian, Key Resolve and Foal Eagle are the most representative major exercises involving the United States and South Korea. Suspending any of these will create a huge dent in their joint military operational abilities,” he said.
He also said holding drills, even smaller ones, are important as the commanders of U.S. forces in South Korea change periodically and quickly need to get used to the feeling they are in the “battlefield.”
While the SDF and the U.S. military plan to continue joint exercises to beef up the bilateral alliance, it is unclear whether Japan, South Korea and the U.S. will actively hold trilateral exercises.
The three have conducted joint missile-tracking exercise in waters near Japan over the past few years amid North Korea’s repeated nuclear and missile tests.
But a Maritime Self-Defense Force member said he cannot imagine Seoul agreeing to hold such training amid the mood of reconciliation with the North.
Some Japanese defense officials are afraid that the halt of exercises, if continued for years, could raise questions over the raison d’etre of the U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, which remains technically at war with the North as the 1950-1953 Korean War ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty.
The officials say a withdrawal of U.S. troops would be the “worst-case scenario” because a weakening of U.S. commitment to the defense of South Korea would leave China free to increase its regional clout.
Tetsuo Kotani, an associate professor at Meikai University who specializes in security issues, said reviewing the role of the U.S. forces in South Korea or scaling back their presence have probably become “inevitable,” not just because Trump has repeatedly expressed his hope to eventually pull out the troops.
Following North Korea’s sudden diplomatic outreach earlier this year, the leaders of the two Koreas met in April for the first time in over a decade and agreed to strive to declare a formal end to the Korean War later this year.
If inter-Korean relations continue to improve and the armistice is replaced with a peace treaty, the presence of the U.S. military will certainly be called into question, the associate professor said.
Kotani also said it is difficult to judge what impact a lasting detente on the Korean Peninsula and the removal of the U.S. military presence from South Korea would have on the 50,000 U.S. troops based in Japan.
“Discussions could go either way — that there is no need to maintain U.S. forces in Japan amid such detente, or that there is rather a need to reinforce the military to counter China. We have to keep in mind both possibilities,” he said.