The Republic of Korea and the United States are eliminating their biggest joint military exercises, in a move to support efforts to continue the denuclearization process on the Korean Peninsula after a recent summit breakdown.
U.S. and ROK Combined Forces Command issued a statement on Sunday, saying that the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises between the two allies will be replaced by a modified exercise called "Alliance", running this year from March 4 to 12. The modified exercise will focus more on "strategic, operational, and tactical aspects of general military operations", the statement said.
With the biggest series of exercises effectively supplanted by the new scaled-down exercise, the U.S. and the ROK are expected instead to conduct low-key battalion or lower-level drills throughout this year, according to the statement.
In a telephone talks on Saturday, Seoul's Defense Minister, Jeong Kyeong-doo, and acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan decided to end the two exercises, reflecting their resolve to keep alive dialogue with Pyongyang despite the breakdown of last week's summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic People's Republic of Korea top leader Kim Jong-un.
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", Shanahan said. Jeong also 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 the DPRK, as Pyongyang has seen these joint military drills between Seoul and Washington as a "rehearsal of invasion". In Pyongyang's most recent commentary on the joint drills, it slammed Seoul for "escalating military power with outside forces", calling the exercises an action that "brings tension" in the area amid ongoing peace talks.
On Thursday, Trump and Kim abruptly ended their two-day summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, without a deal as they failed to compromise over the scope of Washington's sanctions relief and of Pyongyang's denuclearization. But they indicated they will keep the door open for future talks.
Zheng Jiyong, director of the Korea Research Center at Fudan University based in Shanghai, said the conclusion of the drills is a good diplomatic gesture from Seoul and Washington, as it demonstrated that Washington still seeks to remain on cordial terms with Pyongyang.
"But the suspension alone is not enough as the sanctions are sure to remain the elephant in the negotiation room. The failure of the Hanoi summit shows us that the fundamental reason that impedes the development of the denuclearization is the ideological gap between the U.S. and the DPRK," Zheng said.
Foal Eagle has been the biggest of the regular joint exercises held by the allies, involving 200,000 ROK forces and about 30,000 U.S. soldiers. It is accompanied by Key Resolve, a computer-simulated war game conducted by military commanders which usually begins in March and runs for about 10 days, ROK's Yonhap news agency reported.
Trump and Kim held their first summit in Singapore last June. Trump said in Singapore that the U.S. would stop war games with the ROK "unless and until we see the future negotiation is not going along like it should". He also said the drills were "very expensive" and "provocative … war games".
After their initial summit, Seoul and Washington suspended a set of major exercises, including the summertime Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise and wintertime Vigilant Ace air exercise, although they continued smaller-scale drills to maintain combat readiness.