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Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
UPDATE AT 1315 KST: This article has been updated to include a statement from the ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and the Combined Forces Command (CFC) and more details on the newly-designed “Dong Maeng” joint military drills.
The U.S. and South Korea have decided to “terminate” the annual Key Resolve and Foal Eagle joint military drills, the ROK Ministry of National Defense (MND) announced on Sunday, as part of steps to support diplomatic efforts to achieve the complete denuclearization of the peninsula.
The announcement followed a 45 minute long phone call between U.S. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and South Korean Minister of National Defense Jeong Kyeong-doo on Saturday at 2200 KST.
That call saw Jeong and Shanahan assess the outcome of last week’s second U.S.-DPRK summit and discuss how to cooperate on the “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and the establishment of permanent peace” along with “measures to maintain combined readiness posture.”
The U.S. and ROK defense chiefs also agreed to end the joint military drills in line with the diplomatic efforts.
“Both ministers have reviewed and approved the alliance decision on the joint exercise and training proposed by the South Korean chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and the commander of the USFK (United States Forces Korea),” the Korean-language statement read.
“In close consultation between the ROK and the U.S. military authorities, [both] have decided to terminate Key Resolve and Foal Eagle.”
Foal Eagle (FE), a field training exercise (FTX), and Key Resolve (KR), a computer-simulated command post exercise (CPX), typically take place in March and April.
2016 and 2017 saw the U.S. dispatch nuclear-powered aircraft carriers to the peninsula amid condemnation from North Korea.
NK News has learned that the Key Resolve exercises are scheduled to be staged between March 4 and 7 under a new Korean title, while small-scale military drills will be carried out mostly at the military-unit level to replace Foal Eagle.
Just hours after the decision to end Foal Eagle and Resolve was announced, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and the ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command (CFC) announced plans for these modified joint drills, dubbed “Dong Maeng,” from March 4 and 12.
“Dong Maeng,” Korean for “alliance,” is a “combined command post exercise,” the JCS and the CFC said in a statement, explaining that it “has been modified from the previously held spring exercises Key Resolve and Foal Eagle.”
The newly designed joint military drills “will focus on strategic, operational, and tactical aspects of general military operations on the Korean peninsula.”
“Exercise Dong Maeng provides us the opportunity to train and rehearse with our Republic of Korea, United States, and United Nations Sending State Partners,” ROK Chairman of the JCS Park Han-Ki and CFC Commander Robert Abrams said.
“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 ROK MND on Sunday said that both Jeong and Shanahan had reaffirmed their commitment to “continuously assure the joint defense posture of the ROK-U.S. combined forces in order to take action against any security challenges.”
“Both agreed to firmly maintain the military readiness posture through the newly established command post exercise and adjusted field training exercise.”
Today’s announcement is months late: defense minister Jeong at the Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) in October said the U.S. and the ROK would seek to lay out plans to conduct combined military drills in December, following a working-level consultation.
In the bilateral conversation on Saturday, Jeong and Shanahan reaffirmed their desire to “continuously support” both the ROK and the U.S. military, CFC, and United Nations Command (UNC) “for peace and security in the region.”
Both defense chiefs also made it clear that the decision of the adjustment of the major military drills would serve to “support diplomatic efforts to achieve the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula in a final, fully, and verified manner.”
Shanahan also “expressed regret” that Pyongyang and Washington had not reached a final agreement at the second U.S.-DPRK summit, briefing Jeong on the outcome, according to the ROK MND.
The acting U.S. defense chief also said it is expected that the two countries will continue “more active dialogue” based on the outcome of the second meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“The two ministers agreed to continue to support diplomatic efforts through close coordination between the ROK and U.S. military authorities,” the South Korean defense ministry added.
Sunday’s announcement also comes after President Trump on Thursday complained that joint ROK-U.S. military exercises “costs us $100 million every time we do it” at a news conference following his two-day-long second meeting with Kim.
The U.S. President said he would reconsider the joint military drills as they are a “very, very expensive thing.”
“I was telling the generals — I said: Look, you know, exercising is fun and it’s nice and they play the war games,” Trump told assembled reporters.
“I’m not saying it’s not necessary, because at some levels it is, but at other levels, it’s not.”
In the wake of the first DPRK-U.S. summit in June last year, Washington and Seoul in June agreed to “indefinitely suspend selected exercises,” including the large-scale joint Ulchi Freedom Guardian (UFG) drills and the Korean Marine Exchange Program (KMEP).
October saw the U.S. and the ROK agree to suspend the large-scale Vigilant Ace combined air combat drills, as part of efforts to reduce tensions on the peninsula and “give the diplomatic process every opportunity to continue.”
Seoul and Washington also in January last year postponed two joint military exercises to April in order avoid an overlap with the PyeongChang Winter Olympics and Paralympics and to encourage inter-Korean rapprochement.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in his New Year’s Address this year called on the South to end joint military exercises with the U.S. — which he described as a “source of aggravating the situation on the Korean peninsula.”
Since then, DPRK state media has frequently claimed that the South Korean military is undermining peace efforts, with state media frequently labeling them as “war games.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: South Korean Ministry of National Defense (MND)