President Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in have agreed to postpone the sprawling joint military exercise their nations hold each year until after the Winter Olympics, in what appears to be an effort to de-escalate tensions with North Korea ahead of an event that will draw people from around the world.
The Olympics will be held in PyeongChang, a mountainous section of South Korea that is just 60 miles south of the tense Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), where North and South Korean troops have stood off against each other in an uneasy cease-fire since the 1953 armistice in the Korean War.
The military exercise, Foal Eagle, often involves more than 30,000 American and 200,000 South Korean troops, as well as air, ground and naval operations.
Trump and Moon discussed their options Thursday in a phone call. The White House said in a statement that Moon and Trump agreed to “de-conflict” the Olympics and the the military exercise so the United States and South Korea “can focus on ensuring the security of the Games.” The statement avoided saying that the exercise was postponed.
“The two leaders agreed to continue the campaign of maximum pressure against North Korea and to not repeat mistakes of the past,” the White House said. “The United States and the Republic of Korea are committed to a safe and successful 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang.”
Army Col. Rob Manning, a Pentagon spokesman, said that the decision was made “in the spirit of the Olympic Games.” He did not disclose the specific start date of the exercise, saying only that it will be after the Olympics are over.
The White House statement and a message from South Korea’s Presidential Blue House both said that Trump promised to send a high-level delegation, including members of his family, to the Olympics, which run Feb. 9-25. The Paralympics will then follow March 9-18.
Moon said in December that he had asked the U.S. military to postpone the joint military exercises until after the Olympics, adding that a delay was contingent on North Korea not conducting any more missile or nuclear tests.
But it was not clear from Thursday’s statement whether North Korea had in fact made such a pledge. Earlier this week, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said the United States was hearing reports that North Korea might be preparing for another missile test and warned that would lead to tougher steps against Pyongyang.
Moon favors dialogue to reduce tensions with Pyongyang and sees the Olympics as a “groundbreaking chance” to improve ties and achieve peace. His government is also extremely keen to see the Games go off successfully.
The dates for this year’s exercises have not been announced, but the Key Resolve computer-simulated command post exercise was held March 8-23 last year, while the Foal Eagle field training exercises began March 1 and continued through the end of April.
About 17,000 American and more than 300,000 South Korean troops participated in the 2017 exercises, which included drills to preemptively “detect, defend, disrupt and destroy” North Korean nuclear and missile facilities.
North Korea views the exercises as preparation for an invasion.
China has proposed that the United States and South Korea agree to freeze their annual military exercises in return for a North Korea pledge to freeze its nuclear and missile testing program. That would imply that Washington effectively cancel this year’s exercises entirely, since they would be hard to reschedule at short notice, even if the North Koreans reneged on their side of the deal. The Trump administration has rejected the idea.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, asked last week at the Pentagon about whether there would be a “pause” in Foal Eagle, first said there would not be, and then downplayed the significance if it happened. Any decision would be announced by the U.S. and South Korean governments, he said.
“We always adjust exercise dates,” Mattis said. “There’s reasons for it, because we have ships available at certain times and there’s political considerations or there’s local holidays and this sort of thing. We do this all the time, and I honestly don’t have the answer to that question right now.”
This story was initially published at 12:30 p.m. and updated with additional information.