US, South Korea end key joint military exercises

SEOUL (AFP) – The United States (US) and South Korea announced yesterday an end to key annual large-scale military exercises in support of diplomatic efforts to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons programme.

The decision comes days after the conclusion of US President Donald Trump’s second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi, which ended without a formal agreement but with both sides suggesting they would keep talking.

There are close to 30,000 US troops stationed in South Korea, and their annual drills with tens of thousands of South Korean soldiers have been a perennial target of North Korean fury – with Pyongyang condemning the manoeuvres as provocative rehearsals for invasion.

While Trump has ruled out withdrawing the troops, he has repeatedly complained about the cost of the exercises, describing them at a press conference in Hanoi as “very, very expensive”.

During a Saturday phone call between South Korean Defence Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo and his US counterpart Patrick Shanahan, “both sides decided to conclude the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle series of exercises”, according to a Pentagon statement.

Foal Eagle is the biggest of the regular joint exercises held by the allies.

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 which usually begins in March and runs for about 10 days.

The decision was reached to support ongoing diplomatic efforts for North Korea’s denuclearisation and ease military tensions with the North, Seoul’s Defence Ministry said yesterday.

Washington and Seoul will instead conduct “modified” drills starting today through to March 12, a joint military statement announced yesterday.

The nine-day exercise, officially named “Dong Maeng” or “Alliance”, will largely focus on joint defence manoeuvres rather than the offensive posture of the Key Resolve drill, a South Korean military official told AFP.

There was no indication of how many US and South Korean troops will be mobilised for the new exercise.

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said that Seoul’s chief nuclear envoy Lee Do-hoon will also leave for Washington to hold talks with his US counterpart Stephen Biegun.

“Lee will fly sometime this week,” ministry spokesman Noh Kyu-duk told AFP.

Lee and Biegun are expected to discuss the Hanoi summit, which failed to build on the vaguely-worded commitment to denuclearise the Korean peninsula signed by Kim and Trump during their meeting in Singapore last year.

Opponents of scrapping the drills have warned that it could impact the combat readiness of the combined US and South Korean forces and hand the North a strategic advantage on the divided peninsula, but most analysts said such concerns were exaggerated.

“Suspending or downgrading the US-South Korean drills may hurt the readiness of the two militaries, but I don’t think it’s going to be a serious security threat to South Korea,” Ahn Chan-il, the president of the World Institute for North Korea Studies in Seoul, told AFP.