The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. and South Korea end military exercises that riled North Korea in favor of something smaller

Decision was announced after Trump’s latest summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un

U.S. Army helicopters fly north of Seoul during a military exercise with South Korea in 2015. (Lee Jin-man/AP)

U.S. and South Korean officials announced Saturday that they will end longtime military exercises that had riled North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s regime and drawn criticism from President Trump.

The Pentagon disclosed the decision after a phone call between acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan and his South Korean counterpart, Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo. The officials agreed “to conclude” the exercises and replace them with “newly designed Command Post exercises and revised field training programs,” according to a Pentagon statement.

“The Minister and Secretary made clear that the Alliance decision to adapt our training program reflected our desire to reduce tension and support our diplomatic efforts to achieve complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a final, fully verified manner,” the statement said.

U.S. and South Korean officials released a statement in Seoul that said an exercise called Dong Maeng, or “alliance,” will run from March 4-12 and has been “modified from the previously held spring exercises,” Foal Eagle and Key Resolve. Foal Eagle has traditionally included thousands of troops and large displays of force, while Key Resolve focused heavily on computer simulation. The statement avoided saying Dong Maeng has replaced either one, though they both have concluded.

A U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions, said Shanahan had hoped to find a solution that would allow the U.S. and South Korean militaries to continue the elements of the exercises focused on maintaining joint readiness while forgoing elements that in the past had been intended as a show of force.

Those elements, the Pentagon leadership has concluded, could be viewed as saber rattling at a time when the military looks to support diplomacy with North Korea, the official said. The plans to scale back the exercises could have some impact on readiness, officials said, but it’s not clear how much.

The Foal Eagle exercises were held in the spring, and the Key Resolve exercises were traditionally held in the summer. They focused on preparing for the possibility of war with North Korea and involved thousands of troops. At times, they included U.S. bombers, submarines and other displays of force.

The announcement of the change, which NBC News first reported Friday, comes two days after Trump cut short a summit with Kim after they were unable to agree to terms on how to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. As he had previously, the president spoke warmly of Kim and with disdain for the exercises.

“I was telling the generals, I said, ‘Look, you know, exercising is fun and it’s nice and they play the war games,’” Trump said, referring to the exercises with a phrase the Pentagon typically avoids. “And I’m not saying it’s not necessary because at some levels it is, but at other levels it’s not. But it’s a very, very expensive thing. And you know, we do have to think about that, too.”

The president announced in June 2018 following his historic first summit with Kim that he would end all “war games” on the peninsula. The Pentagon said a few days later that it would suspend the Ulchi-Freedom Guardian exercise that was planned for August 2018 but avoided forecasting plans beyond that.

But as discussions continued, it became clear that future exercises also would be affected. Jim Mattis, who resigned as Pentagon chief in December, said in November that this spring’s Foal Eagle exercise would be “reduced in scope” as diplomats from the two countries continued to speak.

“Foal Eagle is being reorganized a bit to keep it at a level that will not be harmful to diplomacy,” Mattis said.

Officials from the two Koreas have agreed on other measures to reduce tensions, including setting up buffer zones in waters around the peninsula and destroying some guard towers at the heavily fortified demilitarized zone that separates the countries.

Some Democrats have questioned whether the cessation of exercises will hurt the ability of the U.S. military to respond in the event of a crisis. Army Gen. Robert Abrams, the top commander of U.S. Forces Korea, downplayed the significance of scaled-back exercises last month.

Abrams, speaking before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 12, said while some exercises have been canceled, the Americans and South Koreans continue to train together and have done “some innovative things” to stay sharp “by adjusting size, scope, volume and the timing” of their operations to allow diplomats to continue discussing peace.

“Historically, we’ve conducted one in the spring and one in the summer, and I have continued planning for execution of one in the spring,” he said.

Under questioning, Abrams said most rank-and-file U.S. troops would not notice a difference in their training level, and battalion commanders “might in the upcoming months.” Senior commanders would see a difference, he said, adding they are well-versed in the demands of their job.

Missy Ryan contributed to this report.

This story was originally published about 6:30 p.m. on March 2 and was updated March 3 with information from a new statement released by U.S. and South Korean officials.


An earlier version of this story misstated how Gen. Robert Abrams said altering exercises would affect U.S. troops.