The U.S. and South Korea will scale back next year’s Foal Eagle military exercise to help keep negotiations with North Korean on track, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis said on Wednesday.
The drills typically take place in the spring and involve thousands of U.S. and South Korean ground troops.
“Foal Eagle is being reorganized a bit to keep it at a level that will not be harmful to diplomacy,” Mattis said during a press conference at the Pentagon, though did not provide further details on the downscaling.
According to Stars and Stripes, recent iterations of the Foal Eagle drills have included 290,000 ROK troops and 11,5000 U.S. troops, in addition to special operations, air and naval exercises.
The announcement follows on from a suspension of the Vigilant Ace air combat drills in October, with the U.S. defense chief saying it was hoped the move would “give the diplomatic process every opportunity to continue.”
Earlier this year Washington also suspended the large-scale Ulchi Freedom Guardian joint exercises and two marine exchange program training exercises.
In September U.S. Army General Robert Abrams said the suspensions had caused a dip in troop readiness on the Korean Peninsula, calling the move a “prudent risk.”
“The suspension of the exercise this past August and September, I would say was prudent risk if we’re willing to make the effort to change the relationship with the DPRK,” Abrams said before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee.
“I think there was certainly degradation to the readiness of the force,” Abrams, who is now commander of U.S. Forces Korea, added.
But South Korea and the U.S. have said that other marine exchanges will go ahead this year, with more scheduled for 2019.
On November 12, North Korea criticized the marine drills saying via its state media that the exercises are a violation of the military agreement the two Koreas signed in September.
“The joint drills between South Korean and U.S marines that have been resumed this time runs counter to the North-South military agreement, which committed to the substantive elimination of the danger of war and the fundamental resolution of hostile relations,” an editorial in the Rodong Sinmun said.
“To promote the current situation on the Korean peninsula whose direction moves toward dialogue and peace, we shouldn’t take military action which opposes the other side and behave rationally to help the alleviation of tensions.”
The remarks came before the DPRK announced it had a tested a new “ultramodern tactical weapon” on November 15.