WASHINGTON - The United States and South Korea are expected to announce that they will not carry out large-scale spring joint military exercises, replacing them with smaller-scale drills, U.S. officials said Friday.
U.S. officials have long said the spring exercises, known as Foal Eagle and Key Resolve, would be reduced in scope.
However, one of the officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said a formal announcement was expected in the coming days.
The official said the decision had been made for some time and was not an outcome of the latest summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The Foal Eagle field exercise, which usually involves thousands of combined ground, air, naval and special operations troops, takes place every spring. Key Resolve is a computer-simulated exercise.
The news was first reported by NBC News.
The United States and South Korea have suspended a number of military exercises since the first summit last year between Kim and Trump to encourage talks with North Korea.
The leaders met this week in Hanoi for their second summit but the talks collapsed on Thursday without any agreement or immediate plan for a third meeting between them or their delegations.
Speaking with reporters after the summit, Trump said military exercises were “very, very expensive.”
“I was telling the generals, I said: Look, you know, exercising is fun and it’s nice and they play the war games. And I’m not saying it’s not necessary, because at some levels it is, but at other levels it’s not,” Trump said.
The Republican president, however, has ruled out withdrawing any of the 28,500 U.S. troops based in South Korea to defend it from its nuclear-armed neighbor, which invaded in 1950.
Any such drawdown would face strong pushback from Congress and Japan, whose conservative government is deeply wary of North Korea’s intentions.
The Pentagon has said that another exercises that was suspended last year, known as Freedom Guardian, would have cost around $14 million.
The U.S. military has a budget of more than $700 billion.
Some experts have criticized halting the joint drills as playing into Chinese and Russian hands, adding that they could adversely affect U.S. and South Korean military readiness.
Michael Green, an expert on Asia with the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank who worked on North Korean issues during the administration of President George W. Bush, said that halting the joint exercises was essentially a “freeze-for-freeze” proposal that has been pushed by Beijing and Moscow for decades that could “weaken U.S. alliances.”
China and Russia had urged the U.S. in 2017 to accept a so-called freeze-for-freeze deal in which the North refrained from nuclear and missile tests in exchange for the U.S. halting its joint drills with South Korea.
Green told CSIS’s “Impossible State” podcast Friday that the problem Trump faces is that “if he resumes exercises, which is what the Pentagon, Japan and the Korean military want … and North Korea starts testing again, he’ll get blamed for provoking North Korean by a lot of the world.
If he doesn’t, Green said U.S. “military readiness will continue to degrade,” adding that if this continued for more than a year, it could “create a kind of magnetic pull to get (U.S. forces) off the peninsula.”
Still, Green noted that “deterrence is not weakened in a substantial way yet.”
South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Friday that Seoul will work with the United States and North Korea to help them reach a denuclearization deal, a day after the second Trump-Kim meeting was cut short over a failure to reach a deal on the extent of sanctions relief North Korea would get in exchange for steps to give up its nuclear program.
Moon has been active in efforts to end confrontation on the Korean Peninsula, meeting Kim three times last year and trying to facilitate his nuclear negotiations with the United States.
“My administration will closely communicate and cooperate with the United States and North Korea so as to help their talks reach a complete settlement by any means,” Moon said in a speech in Seoul.
Moon also said Seoul would consult Washington on ways to resume joint projects with North Korea, including tourism development at Mount Kumgang and the Kaesong industrial complex, both in North Korea.
Both the United States and North Korea have said they intend to continue talks, but have not said when a next round might take place.
The U.S. move to replace the large-scale joint military exercises and replace them with smaller-scale drills could encourage more talks.
Trump and Kim first met in Singapore last June and agreed to establish new relations and peace in exchange for a North Korean pledge to work toward the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
Trump said two days of talks in Hanoi made good progress but it was important not to rush into a bad deal. He said he had walked away because of unacceptable North Korean demands.
“Basically, they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety, and we couldn’t do that,” he said.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a phone call with China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi on Friday, reiterated Washington’s support for keeping in place U.N. sanctions on North Korea, saying they “remain a central pillar” of efforts to pressure Pyongyang to denuclearize, the U.S. State Department said in a statement.
On Friday, Trump tweeted that the negotiations with Kim were “very substantive” and that “we know what they want and they know what we must have,” but he gave no other details about any next steps. “Relationship very good, let’s see what happens!” the post said.
North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho said after Trump left Hanoi that North Korea had sought only a partial lifting of sanctions “related to people’s livelihoods and unrelated to military sanctions.”
He said it offered a realistic proposal involving the dismantling of all of its main nuclear site at Yongbyon, including plutonium and uranium facilities, by engineers from both countries.
While North Korea’s official media said Kim and Trump had decided to continue talks, its Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui has struck a more negative tone, telling reporters Kim “might lose his willingness to pursue a deal.”
“It occurs to us that there may not be a need to continue,” she said, adding that North Korea had taken “many steps” to try to reach a deal.
“We’re doing a lot of thinking,” she said while adding that the situation would change “if our demands can be resolved.”
Pompeo told a news conference in Manila the U.S. side was “anxious to get back to the table so we can continue that conversation that will ultimately lead to peace and stability, better life for the North Korean people, and a lower threat, a denuclearized North Korea.”
And North Korea’s state news agency was conciliatory, quoting Kim as expressing gratitude to Trump for putting in efforts to get results and calling their exchanges constructive. It made no mention of the breakdown of the summit.
Failure to reach an agreement marks a setback for Trump, a self-styled dealmaker under pressure at home over his ties to Russia and testimony from Michael Cohen, his former lawyer who accused him of breaking the law while in office.
The collapse of the summit leaves Kim in possession of what analysts say could be an arsenal of 20 to 60 nuclear warheads, which, if fitted to its intercontinental ballistic missiles, could threaten the U.S. mainland.
Trump stressed that the North Korean leader had agreed to maintain his moratorium on nuclear and ballistic missile tests. A U.S. State Department official said the North Korean media coverage had been constructive, indicating both sides felt there was “ample opportunity” to continue talks.
The U.S. official said North Korea had proposed closing part of its Yongbyon nuclear complex in exchange for lifting “basically all” U.N. sanctions except those directly targeting its weapons programs.
The U.S. side said “that wouldn’t work,” he said, adding that North Korea was unwilling to completely freeze its weapons programs.
“So to give many, many billions of dollars in sanctions relief would in effect put us in a position of subsidizing the ongoing development of weapons of mass destruction,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The United Nations and the United States ratcheted up sanctions on North Korea when it conducted repeated nuclear and ballistic missile tests in 2017.
Washington has demanded North Korea’s complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization before sanctions can be lifted, a position Pyongyang has denounced as “gangster like.”