South Korea and the United States have announced that they will end the combined military exercises Key Resolve (KE) and Foal Eagle (FE) and launch a new command post exercise called the “Dong Maeng” from Monday to next Tuesday. The Foal Eagle field maneuvers exercises will be replaced with battalion- or lower-level drills throughout the year. In Saturday’s telephone talks, the two allies’ defense ministers reportedly decided to end the large-scale drills and continue coordination to back diplomacy for the complete denuclearization of and lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula.
Announced just three days after the breakdown of negotiations at the Hanoi summit, the decision signals the allies’ intention to maintain the current “freeze-for-freeze” approach in which the North refrains from nuclear and missile tests in exchange for the U.S. halting its joint exercises with Seoul. “The military exercises, I gave that up quite a while ago,” President Trump said in a press conference following the Hanoi summit. Seoul’s defense ministry and Pentagon have also explained that the decision is in line with their efforts to support diplomatic efforts toward denuclearization.
In fact, the termination of the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises has been long anticipated. South Korea and the United States already scaled back and adjusted the schedule of their combined drills from early last year, and the Ulchi Freedom Guardian (UFG) exercises and the Vigilant Ace aerial drills were suspended after the Singapore summit. Under the following inter-Korean military agreements made on Sept. 19, the two Koreas have halted hostile activities and exploded guard posts, making it even less likely that large-scale military exercises would take place in the near future.
However, the extended absence of combined military drills is worrisome as it can lead to a lax readiness posture and even weaken the South Korea-U.S. alliance. In the current circumstances where the transition of the wartime operational control is under discussion, a prolonged vacuum of military exercises would negatively affect the allies’ combined defense capability. It also brings concern regarding mutual trust between the allies as President Trump has continuously called for Seoul to take a larger share in their defense cost, using the deployment of strategic assets as one of the negotiating cards.
Still, what’s more worrying is that the North may get the wrong idea about the decision. North Korea has strongly criticized the exercises as rehearsals for invasion and nuclear wars, and demanded that the two sides completely halt exercises of all scales. Thus, the regime may be misinterpreting the decision as the result of its efforts to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States. There is also a possibility that Kim may conduct provocative acts to try to make up for “humiliation” he suffered in Hanoi. Therefore, Seoul and Washington must make sure that they are maintaining a watertight readiness posture. The latest decision should be also considered a temporary action that is subject to change. The two allies must always stand ready to fight enemies at any time.