US, South Korea scale back joint military drills ‘to reduce tension’ with North Korea

South Korean Marines attend the media day of the 65th South Korea Armed Forces Day ceremony on September 25, 2017 in Pyeongteak, South Korea.

The United States and South Korea announced Saturday that annual large-scale exercises, which were a cornerstone and recent common feature of the defense relationship between the two militaries, will end and will be re-configured into smaller exercises that do not carry the same high profile as earlier versions known to have been a major irritant to North Korea

The large scale named military exercises, commonly known as Foal Eagle and Key Resolve, were scheduled for this spring. The joint exercises will be scaled back and done on a small unit level or even include virtual training similar to the 2018 scaled back exercises.

Defense officials have said they believe they can achieve the necessary training needs in this manner. The announcement follows a phone call Saturday between acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and South Korean Minister of National Defense Jeong Kyeong-doo.

“Following close coordination, both sides decided to conclude the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle series of exercises,” a readout from the Defense Department of the phone call said. “The Minister and Secretary reaffirmed their commitment to ensuring the continued combined defense of U.S.-ROK (Republic of Korea) combined forces to meet any security challenge, and agreed to maintain firm military readiness through newly designed Command Post exercises and revised field training programs.”

The US and South Korea will hold the military exercises from March 4 through March 12, the South Korean Defense Ministry said in a statement Sunday.

The joint command post drills name will be “Dongmaeng,” or alliance in English, and will replace Key Resolve. Foal Eagle drills will be replaced by a much smaller, battalion-sized exercise, the statement said.

The Dongmaeng exercise will highlight the longstanding and enduring partnership and friendship between the two nations along with their commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea and regional stability, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Combined Forces Command said in a statement.

“Exercise Dong Maeng provides us the opportunity to train and rehearse with our Republic of Korea, United States, and United Nations Sending State Partners,” said the ROK Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Park Han-Ki and the CFC Commander, Gen. Robert B. “Abe” Abrams.

“It is important for professional armies to train and maintain to a standard of readiness. These exercises are crucial in sustaining and strengthening the alliance.”

The announcement follows this week’s summit in Hanoi between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that ended in a failure to reach an agreement between both sides.

“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,” said the readout.

Trump has also questioned the usefulness of the exercises citing the disproportionate share of the cost of the exercises borne by the United States over South Korea.

Sunday afternoon, he tweeted: “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. That was my position long before I became President. Also, reducing tensions with North Korea at this time is a good thing!”

The US had had already suspended several larger military exercises as part of an effort to ease tensions with North Korea following the June Singapore summit between Trump and Kim. Former Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters last November that the 2019 version of the Foal Eagle exercise was being “reorganized a bit” to keep from “being harmful to diplomacy.”

By Barbara Starr and Jamie Crawford, CNN

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