The second Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi was a fiasco. The security dynamics in the Korean Peninsula have suddenly taken a different turn with the announcement by the US and South Korea on 3 March to end the annual large-scale joint military exercises as part of diplomatic efforts to “achieve complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula”. The Key Resolve and Foal Eagle series of exercises have been regarded as an important element in the security calculus of both the US and South Korea, and terminating the arrangement opens a new Pandora’s box in the region’s security matrix. Foal Eagle is the biggest of the regular joint exercises held by the allies, and has always infuriated Pyongyang. In the past, it has involved 200,000 South Korean forces and some 30,000 US soldiers. It is accompanied by Key Resolve, a computer- simulated war game conducted by military commanders. It usually begins in March and runs for about 10 days. The allies have now agreed to carry out “adjusted outside manoeuvre trainings and united command exercises to continue firm military readiness”.
Security analysts have tried to unravel the compelling reasons behind this decision just three days after the second summit between President Trump and the North Korean leader, President Kim Jong-un in Hanoi. It has ended without an agreement to resolve North Korea’s nuclear issue. Is it a new carrot offered to Pyongyang as it has denounced the US-South Korea joint exercises as aggressive provocation and rehearsal for war?
There could be two reasons for this important decision. One is to send a good-faith message to the North to sustain nuclear talks following the failed Hanoi summit. The second is to address Trump’s concern over the high cost of this massive display of force. This is not the first time that annual joint drills have been tweaked. Conducted every Spring, it was postponed for the first time in 2018 to facilitate North Korea’s peaceful participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics held in South Korea.
Trump had been quite wary about the mounting cost of the exercises and was seriously reflecting on the issue, overlooking what implications the decision would have on the security of the region. The failure of the Hanoi summit provided the right opportunity for him to announce the decision. An advocate of “America First” policy and determined to rewrite many of the accepted rules governing relations among nations, Trump was not averse to be critical of the cost of these joint exercises that involve thousands of troops, fighter jets, warships and other military assets from US bases around the world. Trump is concerned over the matter that the military exercises cost $100 million every time it is conducted. He thus decided to replace the large-scale drills with a series of smaller exercises and virtual exercises based on training and technology instead of deploying thousands of actual troops for the war games.
Though Trump has repeatedly complained about the large-scale exercises, arguing that these are too costly and therefore the US would be unwilling to bear so huge a financial burden, defenders say the training is relatively cheap, noting estimates that a separate Korea exercise staged by the Pentagon cost only $14 million a year.
Following the first summit in Singapore in June 2018, Trump sprang a surprise by announcing suspension of the allies’ summertime military drills and called Ulchi Freedom Guardian drills ~ largely computer-simulated war games ~ “very provocative” and “massively expensive.” Trump has, however, ruled out withdrawing any of the 28,500 US forces based in South Korea to defend it from its nuclear armed neighbour, which invaded in 1950. Though South Korea, under President Moon Jae-in is persevering hard for a breakthrough on the nuclear issue, joined Trump to downsize the exercise, Japan was clearly uncomfortable as it is wary of North Korea’s intentions. Notwithstanding Moon’s optimism, there could be an overwhelming opinion inside South Korea and Japan that extending this olive branch to North Korea could be cause for worry about maintaining their readiness in the event that military tensions erupt again in the wake of the failed Hanoi summit.
Critics contend that scrapping the drills could impact the combat readiness of the combined forces and afford North Korea a strategic advantage. There are others who disagree, however. Ahn Chan-il, the president of the World Institute for North Korea in Seoul, opines that suspending or downsizing the drills might impinge on the readiness of the two militaries. Since the first summit between Trump and Kim in June 2018, in which both leaders signed a vaguely-worded commitment to denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, both sides have scaled back or scrapped several joint military drills, and US bombers are no longer flying over South Korea. Professor Yang Moo-jin of the University of North Korean Studies is of the opinion that “not downgrading or suspending the drills at this point would mean the involved countries are not serious” about reaching a denuclearisation accord.
The new arrangement agreed upon provides for new training in smaller drills, tabletop exercises and simulations, and will involve smaller units, such as battalions and companies rather than massive formations involving thousands of troops, as they had in the past. The Pentagon will now focus on smaller exercises and essential tasks, which include the ability to integrate airstrikes and the use of other weapons systems, drones, surveillance assets, logistics, and communications. Before resigning as defence secretary in November 2018, Jim Mattis had said that it would be a reorganization of the exercises, not an end to manoeuvres on the Peninsula.
Though the announcement to cancel the drills was expected to form a part of the summit agreement, Trump went ahead to announce cancellation despite the lack of a summit deal. The decision to proceed with the cancellation after a failed summit looked bad but there could have been a possibility that it was agreed separately and no one could imagine how that decision would be interpreted if Hanoi failed. In fact that is the way it happened. Hence the various interpretations and opinions. Though its equipment is increasingly outdated, Pyongyang maintains one of the largest conventional militaries in the world, along with a stockpile of nuclear weapons. Those who argue on the continuance of the military drills say that North Korea has the capability to hold the US, South Korea and Japan at risk and therefore it is necessary to maintain a postured and ready force to deter any possible aggressive actions.
(The writer is Lok Sabha Research Fellow. Views are personal)