Experts Question Wisdom of Canceling U.S. Exercises with South Korea, As Mattis Makes It Official
But some analysts say it’s a small price to pay for the possibility of peace with North Korea.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis has officially made good on U.S. President Donald Trump’s promise to cancel joint military exercises with South Korea, suspending “indefinitely” a major annual training exercise this summer and two smaller ones.
Trump pledged after his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un earlier this month to cancel the “war games,” describing them as both provocative and expensive.
Critics of the decision argue that Trump made a major concession that unnerves important U.S. allies and benefits China, while getting no concrete assurances that North Korea will work to get rid of its nuclear weapons capability. But proponents of the move say a one-time suspension of a primarily symbolic training exercise is a small price to pay for the possibility of peace on the peninsula.
So what did Trump give up exactly?
In a statement issued Friday, a spokesman said Mattis suspended Ulchi Freedom Guardian, a massive command-and-control exercise held each August. Freedom Guardian is one of two major exercises conducted annually by the United States and South Korea, during which forces practice defending the South from attack — or invading the North, depending on who you ask. Last year, the exercise involved 50,000 South Korean troops alongside 17,500 U.S. forces.
Mattis also called off two Korean Marine Exchange Program training exercises scheduled to occur in the next three months.
“In support of upcoming diplomatic negotiations led by Secretary [of State Mike] Pompeo, additional decisions will depend upon the DPRK [North Korea] continuing to have productive negotiations in good faith,” Defense Department spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Logan said.
Suspending the exercises is a symbolic victory for Kim. Officially, the intent of Freedom Guardian and its springtime counterpart, Foal Eagle, is for U.S. and South Korean forces to practice fighting together in the event of an attack, but North Korea has condemned the exercises as provocative.
The move is also a boon for China, said Jonathan Pollack, a nonresident senior fellow who studies U.S.-China relations at the Brookings Institution. The Chinese have long argued for a “dual freeze” in which North Korea promises to halt nuclear and missile testing in exchange for the United States agreeing to forego large-scale military exercises.
In the long term, suspending the exercises also serves to weaken traditional U.S. alliances in Asia, another win for Beijing, said Victor Cha, senior advisor and Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
From a military perspective, the annual exercises are critical to maintaining the readiness of the joint force and the ability to coordinate seamlessly in the event of a conflict in the Pacific, said Yuki Tatsumi, co-director of the East Asia Program and director of the Japan Program at the Stimson Center.
“It’s not just for show, it really is an important part of training for U.S. and South Korean forces to be able to operate together in the event of a contingency,” Tatsumi said.
A one-time suspension of exercises is manageable in terms of maintaining readiness, argued Scott Snyder, director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. But refraining from conducting exercises for years could erode the ability of the two countries to cope with a conflict in the region.
“As rotations occur in our deployed force as well as in Korea’s conscripted service, the muscle memory obtained from the experience of having those exercises will be lost,” Snyder said.
Perhaps more important than maintaining readiness, Freedom Guardian is a symbol of U.S. strength and solidarity with its allies, one that is noticed both by North Korea and by China, other analysts said. The annual joint exercises have been a major part of maintaining peace on the peninsula and deterring North Korea since the Korean War, according to Cha.
“The main thing that you get with a huge exercise that is unique is the symbolism,” added Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, though he noted that the military readiness and interoperability benefits “can be achieved just as effectively at a smaller scale.”
As far as maintaining alliances, analysts point out that the South Korean government actually supports the decision to cancel Freedom Guardian, as President Moon Jae-in, a progressive, has made efforts to engage with Kim over the past few months.
On the other hand, Moon was blindsided by Trump’s unilateral announcement that the United States would suspend the exercises, Tatsumi said.
“I think they were not so happy that the decision was made unilaterally without prior consultation,” she said, adding that the surprise announcement made them a “little bit uneasy.”
Meanwhile another important Pacific ally, Japan, is increasingly nervous. The timing of the announcement, just a week after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the White House, makes Japan ever more distrustful of U.S. promises, experts said. At the same time, Trump’s hefty aluminum and steel tariffs are not helping U.S.-Japanese relations.
The Trump administration talks about understanding Japan’s security interests but doesn’t seem to follow through, according to Tatsumi, making the Japanese question the U.S. commitment to the alliance. “The biggest variable here I think is the president himself,” she said.
Still, O’Hanlon believes Japan will eventually get on board.
“We should listen to them, we should talk to them, but the Japanese also have to get real a little,” he said. “They are mature enough as a power that they can understand the full range of stakes here.”
The real question is whether North Korea will make any concrete moves toward denuclearization, such as submitting a comprehensive list of its nuclear testing sites, by August, Cha said. If not, and the United States decides to resume Freedom Guardian, “that makes the exercise a political instrument, a negotiating chip, instead of being the baseline of deterrence on the peninsula,” he added.
O’Hanlon disputes the view that Trump won no concessions from North Korea. Kim has declared a moratorium on nuclear and missile testing, and North Korea has destroyed a missile engine test site, he said.
“It’s a pretty modest price to pay, and, in fact, I think we get the better end of the deal,” O’Hanlon said.
Jeffrey Lewis, director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies’ East Asia Nonproliferation Program and a columnist for Foreign Policy, concedes suspending the exercises for a year or two while negotiations are ongoing is “not a big deal … it’s not like the world is going to end.”
But he is troubled by what he described as the president’s “sweeping condemnation of all military exercises” as expensive and provocative. In reality, military exercises are essential to U.S. foreign relations, he said.
And although the North Koreans have stopped conducting flight tests, they are continuing to build missiles, Lewis argues.
“We gave up a very concrete thing and we got worse than nothing,” he said.