Pentagon weighs future of Korea drills

Phil Stewart

The US military is looking at ways to ensure American forces in South Korea could still be fully trained and ready, a day after President Donald Trump suspended military exercises in a surprise concession to North Korea.

US officials say it is unclear what types of training involving US and South Korean troops might cross into Trump's now forbidden zone of "war games." But big, joint US-South Korean exercises appeared off-limits under the new guidance.

Trump announced the end to the drills on Tuesday following his historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore, calling exercises expensive and "provocative" - echoing a North Korean criticism that the US had long rejected.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking to a small group of reporters in Seoul on Wednesday, said Trump was unambiguous that the exercises would be frozen as long as there were productive, good-faith negotiations with Pyongyang.

"His intention here was to put us in a place where we get the opportunity to have productive conversations connected to the denuclearisation of North Korea," Pompeo said.

The decision to halt military exercises in South Korea has bewildered many current and former US defence officials, who only learned about it when Trump made his remarks.

They fear it could erode the readiness of US troops in one of the world's most sensitive military flashpoints who have long prided themselves on being able to "fight tonight," thanks to heightened training.

Critics, including in Congress, warn that an end to joint US-South Korean drills could also erode the effectiveness of the military alliance between Washington and Seoul. They also baulked at Trump's justification that cutting drills would save money.

A White House National Security Council official said some types of training would continue even after Trump's announcement.

US Democratic Representative Ted Lieu, a former active-duty Air Force officer now in the Reserves, questioned how the military would differentiate between military exercises and "regular readiness training."

As the dust settled, it appeared increasingly unlikely that US troops would be able to proceed with the annual Exercise Ulchi Freedom Guardian, a largely computer-simulated but large-scale exercise in South Korea that last took place in August 2017 and involved 17,500 US forces joining South Korean troops.

Forces from Australia, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, New Zealand, the Netherlands and Britain also participated.

Republican Representative Mac Thornberry, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he believed the August drill would be affected.

The US-South Korean exercise calendar hits a high point every spring with the Foal Eagle and Max Thunder drills, which both wrapped up last month.

One possibility could be carrying out some joint training overseas - beyond South Korea. Within the US military's Pacific Command, there are plenty of regular exercise opportunities.