The United States and South Korea have announced that they are canceling large-scale military exercises to support diplomacy with North Korea. U.S. President Donald Trump suspended similar drills after the Singapore summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last year and the failure of last week’s follow-up meeting between the two men prompted many observers to expect some move to restore momentum to faltering diplomacy. While we support every effort to promote a peaceful denuclearization of North Korea, it is also critical that regional security and stability not be compromised in the process.
The U.S. and South Korea have held bilateral exercises since the inception of their alliance. The very real fear of a North Korean invasion — a reasonable concern given the North’s attack on the South in June 1950 — obliged the two allies to prepare to fight and the more realistic the scenario the more effective the training would be. Those preparations also signal to Pyongyang that any attack would fail, deterring a conflict before it began.
North Korea has long complained about the exercises, arguing that they are practice runs for an invasion, and it has used them as proof of the need to acquire a nuclear capability. Other governments in the region, China in particular, accept that criticism and have urged the allies to halt exercises to reduce tensions on the peninsula and give the North a reason to denuclearize. Of course, China would also benefit if the two countries stopped exercises and the capabilities of the alliance were to be reduced.
Trump has long complained about military exercises as part of a more general critique of U.S. alliances. He believes that those countries do not contribute enough to the defense partnership and take advantage of Washington’s generosity. After the two governments announced that they were ending Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, two major annual drills, Trump tweeted that cancelation would “save hundreds of millions of dollars for the U.S.,” adding that opposition to the exercises “was my position long before I became President” and that “reducing tensions with North Korea at this time is a good thing!” He did not mention the potentially deleterious effects of such a move, such as the degradation of alliance capabilities. The two militaries rotate troops through key positions annually and realistic exercises are needed to maintain readiness and interoperability.
Military leaders in both nations insist that readiness will not be compromised. Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan tweeted that he and South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo “agreed to maintain strong military readiness through newly designed Command Post exercises & revised field training programs. Together we are ready to meet any security challenge.” Smaller joint exercises are being held through next Tuesday in place of Key Resolve. Smaller, battalion-sized exercises will occur later in the year to replace Foal Eagle.
There is another reason for concern, and that is how the decision was made. Trump unilaterally announced the cancelation of drills after the Singapore summit, a decision that surprised not only Seoul but his own security team. This time, the cancelation was made after “close consultation” between the U.S. and South Korean defense authorities and the two militaries noted in a joint statement that “communication between the U.S. and South Korea is ongoing more smoothly than ever in the changing security environment on the Korean Peninsula.” But apparently the U.S. pushed hard for the cancelation and South Korea followed that lead.
Japan must be concerned about these developments. For all the tension in Japan-South Korea relations, defense planners and officials here acknowledge that the security of the two countries is deeply intertwined. Any deterioration of capability in the U.S.-South Korea alliance threatens Japan too, especially if North Korea makes no promises to reduce or check the development of its capabilities. Thus far, it has not done so, other than agreeing not to conduct nuclear or missile tests.
U.S. allies are watching how Washington manages its alliances for signs of what they can expect. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga acknowledged as much when he noted that top defense officials in the U.S. and South Korea promised to remain ready “to respond to any security challenge and agreed to maintain solid military readiness,” and concluded that “as the U.S. administration is committed to maintaining its defense commitment to its allies, its commitment to the Japan-U.S. alliance remains unchanged.” Yet, if Washington pressed Seoul to follow its lead on such decisions, then Tokyo must expect similar pressure as well. Trump’s concern with costs foreshadows bitter negotiations with Japan over a future host nation support agreement. U.S. alliances are entering uncharted waters as the regional security situation evolves.