Report

Few Signs of Progress on Denuclearization as U.S., South Korea Cancel Another Major Military Exercise

Current and former U.S. officials say North Korea is dragging its heels, but Seoul and Pyongyang are still talking.

U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, left, shakes hands with South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo before their meeting in Seoul on June 28.
U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, left, shakes hands with South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo before their meeting in Seoul on June 28.

The U.S. Defense Department and South Korea decided to cancel another major joint exercise on the Korean Peninsula this year, despite a distinct lack of progress in negotiations with North Korea over denuclearization.

U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and South Korean Minister of National Defense Jeong Kyeong-doo decided to suspend the event, Exercise Vigilant Ace, in order to “give the diplomatic process every opportunity to continue,” chief Pentagon spokesperson Dana White said in a statement Friday.

The leaders left the door open to canceling additional exercises as talks progress.

“Both ministers are committed to modifying training exercises to ensure the readiness of our forces,” White said. “They pledged to maintain close coordination and evaluate future exercises.”

The latest concession comes as progress appears to stall on the U.S. government’s main goal: denuclearization of the peninsula. Following Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s latest trip to North Korea, special representative to Pyongyang Stephen Biegun told reporters that he expected to begin working-level talks on denuclearization with his North Korean counterpart, Deputy Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui.

But several former U.S. officials and foreign diplomats say North Korea hasn’t responded to requests for follow-on talks with Biegun, a sign that Pyongyang is dragging its heels on negotiations.

The move to cancel Vigilant Ace was welcomed by some in the South Korean government. “This will provide a good atmosphere for follow-on negotiations with the United States,” said one South Korean diplomat, who was not authorized to speak on the record.

Jonathan Pollack of the Brookings Institution noted that the picture was more complex than merely what was happening in U.S.-North Korean talks. Pollack said two other political variables are at play: U.S. President Donald Trump’s belief that the exercises are a waste of time and money, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s accelerated efforts at reconciliation with North Korea. Seoul reportedly recently outlined plans to sign a military agreement with Pyongyang at a third South-North Korean summit in September. The two nations agreed to set up a no-fly zone, among other things.

“Mattis is therefore accommodating to these political realities,” Pollack said. “As long as a left-of-center president in Seoul is determined to press ahead with North Korea, he will press the U.S. to curtail the level and visibility of U.S. military activity on the peninsula.”

But other experts criticized the decision as yet another concession to North Korea without getting anything in return. “They are incrementally gaining concessions without taking real steps toward denuclearization,” said Bruce Klingner, a former CIA deputy division chief for Korea, now with the Heritage Foundation.

On a trip to North Korea earlier this month, Pompeo touted “significant progress” he made with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, including hashing out details for a second summit between Kim and Trump. North Korea has returned the remains of U.S. service members killed in the Korean War, released three detained Americans, and dismantled parts of two facilities in its nuclear program: a missile engine factory and a nuclear test site.

But Klingner said some of North Korea’s concessions were superficial. “The two facilities they closed, they no longer need for their nuclear program,” he said. “They’re incrementally gaining concessions without taking real steps toward denuclearization.”

Vigilant Ace, while not quite on the same scale as Ulchi Freedom Guardian, the joint exercise Mattis canceled in June after Trump’s first summit with Kim, is still a major military event. Last year, it involved more than 12,000 service members and 230 aircraft. (By contrast, last year Freedom Guardian involved 50,000 South Korean troops alongside 17,500 U.S. forces.)

But while Freedom Guardian is a computerized command-and-control exercise designed to simulate an attack on South Korea, Vigilant Ace is intended to increase familiarity and interoperability between the U.S. and South Korean air forces, according to Pollack. During Vigilant Ace, the allies test various procedures that would presumably be employed in wartime, he added.

“When does it stop? And what impact does it have on allied deterrence capabilities?” Klingner said. “Militaries need to train, and if they’re not training, the question could arise: Why are they on the peninsula in the first place?”

Army Gen. Robert Abrams, the president’s nominee to lead U.S. Forces Korea, acknowledged recently that the suspension of exercises this summer led to a “slight degradation” in American readiness. He stressed, however, that the decision was a calculated diplomatic concession that will not lead to any long-term damage.

“The suspension of military exercises … was a prudent risk if we’re willing to make the effort to change the relationship,” Abrams said. “I think there is certainly degradation to the readiness of the force. That’s a key exercise to maintain continuity and to continue to practice our interoperability, and so there was a slight degradation.”

Pollack believes the United States and South Korea concluded that, despite concern over degrading readiness, proceeding with the normal training schedule would complicate the pursuit of a diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea, “even if the latter possibility seems decidedly iffy.”

Michael O’Hanlon, an analyst with the Brookings Institution, has a different theory: The suspension is meant as an incentive for North Korea to continue its moratorium on nuclear missile tests.

“Arguably we have settled into a freeze-for-freeze situation,” he said.

A State Department spokesperson said the United States, South Korea, and Japan “are committed to close coordination on our unified response to North Korea.”

“We are not going to comment on details of our negotiations,” the spokesperson said.

Lara Seligman is Foreign Policy's Pentagon correspondent. @laraseligman

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy@RobbieGramer

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