The U.S. and South Korea militaries began a new, smaller-scale joint exercise Monday after the Trump administration canceled large-scale drills just days after U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met in Hanoi for their second summit that ended without any deal on denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.
The Combined Forces Command said in a statement Monday that the two militaries will conduct the new exercise, named “Dong Maeng” in Korean, or “Alliance” in English, and other lower-level drills to replace the Foal Eagle field training. The Alliance drills are to run for nine days — half the duration of the computer-simulated Key Resolve tabletop exercise.
The new drill will focus on “strategic, operational, and tactical aspects of general military operations,” the statement said.
Trump has repeatedly criticized the joint military drills — which he calls “war games” — as a waste of money, a view he reiterated in a tweet Sunday.
“The reason I do not want military drills with South Korea is to save hundreds of millions of dollars for the U.S. for which we are not reimbursed,” Trump tweeted. “That was my position long before I became President. Also, reducing tensions with North Korea at this time is a good thing!”
The decision to halt the large-scale exercises came after Trump’s second summit with Kim last week collapsed.
Asked about any potential impact of the change, Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s top government spokesman, said he believes Washington’s commitment to the defense of its allies, including Japan, remains unchanged.
“We intend to continue to work closely with the United States and South Korea to realize regional peace and stability,” the chief Cabinet secretary told a news conference in Tokyo on Monday.
The Pentagon and the Defense Ministry in Seoul formally announced the cancellation of the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises over the weekend.
The move “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 Pentagon said. South Korea’s Defense Ministry confirmed the decision, saying it was done to pursue “permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.”
Ending the military drills meets a long-standing demand of North Korea, which has long viewed the exercises with suspicion, calling them a rehearsal for invasion.
In his annual New Year’s speech, Kim called for an end to the joint drills, as well as the deployment of U.S. “strategic assets” such as B-52 bombers, stealth warplanes, nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers.
“Given that North and South committed themselves to advancing along the road of peace and prosperity, we maintain that the joint military exercises with foreign forces, which constitute the source of aggravating the situation on the Korean Peninsula, should no longer be permitted and the introduction of war equipment including strategic assets from outside should completely be suspended,” he said in the address.
Asked about the exercises at a news conference following the Hanoi summit, Trump alleged that the drills cost the U.S. “$100 million every time we do it.” However U.S. defense officials have said that another, similar exercise that Trump suspended last year, known as Ulchi Freedom Guardian, would have cost around $14 million.
The U.S. military has a budget of more than $700 billion.
“We spent hundreds of millions of dollars on those exercises, and I hated to see it. I thought it was unfair,” he said at the news conference.
“And, frankly, I was, sort of, of the opinion that South Korea should help us with that. You know, we’re protecting South Korea. I think they should help us with that.”
In comments that were likely to send a shiver down the spines of Japanese officials, Trump also alluded to other countries where U.S. troops are stationed — including Japan, which has parried with Trump over basing costs for American forces.
“We don’t get reimbursed — we’re spending a tremendous amount of money on many countries, protecting countries that are very rich that can certainly afford to pay us and then some.”
Some critics have lambasted Trump over his views on U.S. alliances, saying he sees them merely as “protection rackets,” while others have lamented the move as “an alarming development.”
In an editorial Monday, the South Korean JoongAng Ilbo daily said that “if such pivotal drills are cut back, it will . . . certainly weaken the combat capability of the Combined Forces Command. “That’s like taking a test without studying,” it said.
Still, some have called the idea of ending the joint exercises an idea whose time has come as the U.S. comes to grips with the North as a de facto nuclear power.
“The president deserves credit for taking a long overdue and politically difficult step,” retired U.S. Army Col. William McKinney, a North Korea expert, wrote after Trump’s announcement at the conclusion of last year’s Singapore summit with Kim that he would scrap some exercises.
Instead of the large-scale exercises, McKinney recommended an approach that appeared similar to the newly announced Alliance drills.
“Given how much the North Koreans detest exercises that are intended to demonstrate the U.S.-ROK capacity to ‘decapitate’ the North Korean leadership and overthrow the Kim regime, his surprising commitment is the most strategically significant confidence-building measure that could be made,” McKinney wrote last June on the North Korea-monitoring 38 North website, using the acronym for South Korea’s official name, the Republic of Korea.