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War games 'very provocative'? To S. Korea, so is calling them off

President Trump's decision to call of an annual joint military exercise with South Korea has led some analysts to question if outreach to Kim signals a US retreat from the region.

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US Marines (l.) and South Korean troops (with blue headbands on their helmets) take positions after landing on a beach during a joint military exercise in Pohang, South Korea, in 2016. President Trump promised to end 'war games' with South Korea, calling them provocative, after meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un June 12.

Kim Jun-bum/Yonhap/AP/File

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The military exercises that the United States holds with South Korea every summer, code-named Ulchi Freedom Guardian, have been a vital part of the two countries’ alliance since the 1970s. They’re also one of the largest military exercises in the world. They lasted for 11 days last year and involved some 17,500 American forces and 50,000 South Korean troops.

The main goal of the exercises, which rely heavily on computer simulations, is to ensure that the two militaries are prepared for a sudden crisis, namely an attack by North Korea. They also send a strong message about American commitment to its allies in the region – a commitment that has been called into question following President Trump’s dismissal of the exercises as a waste of money, and their formal suspension earlier this week.

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Pyongyang routinely decries such exercises as rehearsals for an invasion. It had threatened to call off its June 12 summit with the US, and did call off a meeting with Seoul, over the “Max Thunder” drills in May. This summer’s exercises would have been “very provocative,” Mr. Trump said at the Singapore summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un last week. That's where he first indicated he would suspend the “war games,” “unless and until” talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program show signs of trouble.

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But to critics, suspending Freedom Guardian – particularly without consulting Seoul – threatens to erode the trust holding two longtime allies together. And as countries like Japan and South Korea lose confidence in American commitments to the region, they say, others stand to win: China and North Korea.

The US president has surprised many people in his negotiations with North Korea. In late May, he abruptly canceled his June 12 meeting with Mr. Kim, only to announce eight days later it was back on. Both then and again last week, officials in Seoul were caught off guard. “The meaning and intention of President Trump’s remarks requires more clear understanding,” the office of South Korean President Moon Jae-in said in a statement after the summit.

The Pentagon officially announced the military exercises’ suspension on Monday. The South Korean Defense Ministry followed on Tuesday, saying it was necessary to put them on hold to support ongoing talks with Pyongyang.

“South Korea and the US made the decision as we believe this will contribute to maintaining such momentum,” Choi Hyun-soo, the ministry's spokeswoman, told the Associated Press.

Eroding the relationship

Analysts warn that Trump’s seat-of-the-pants decision-making threatens to erode the relationship between Washington and Seoul. More broadly, it raises questions about whether his outreach to Kim signals an American retreat from the region.

“If this had been coordinated beforehand with South Korea and Japan, and then it was announced, that would have been one thing. But it was completely the opposite,” says Lisa Collins, a fellow at the Office of the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “I think there's a lot of concern that not consulting our allies was a huge mistake on the part of Trump that just basically gives more leverage to China and North Korea in the end.”

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To some extent, South Korean officials have grown accustomed to Trump’s unpredictability, Ms. Collins says. But, she says, “there are people in Seoul who believe that there is enough history in the alliance and enough people in the Trump administration who can influence Trump to keep the alliance grounded. At least for now.”

Trump's perspective on the alliance has been clear since his 2016 campaign, when he first said he wanted to withdraw American troops from South Korea. Without any forewarning to Seoul, he reiterated his desire to eventually do so after the summit in Singapore.

Officials in Seoul have sought to minimize the damage. The decision to suspend Ulchi Freedom Guardian appears to leave room for routine training between American and South Korean troops that takes place throughout the year. Defense officials in both countries told reporters that no decisions have been made on any other military exercises, including live-fire drills that usually take place in the spring.

Driving a wedge

Still, analysts say that the decision to suspend the exercises, combined with Trump’s stated desire to withdraw American troops from South Korea, have exacerbated concerns about the country’s long-term security, and the region’s. Lee Seong-hyon, a research fellow at the Sejong Institute in Seongnam, South Korea, warns that while it’s too early to know the full implications of the suspension, it could alter the balance of power in East Asia.

“It's more than weakening the US-ROK alliance,” Mr. Lee says in an email, referring to the Republic of Korea, South Korea’s formal name. “It will weaken the US leadership role in the region.”

Since the end of World War II, the US has maintained a firm foothold in East Asia and provided security assurances to its allies there. It has 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea and 54,000 in Japan. Long considered a stabilizing force in the region, the US, according to Lee, may now be abdicating that role, much to the delight of China.

“China sees the US alliance structure in the region as the major institutional device by Washington to contain China,” Lee says. 

Under President Xi Jinping, China aims to supplant the US as the predominant power in Asia. Beijing has long called for an end to joint military drills between the US and South Korea and the removal of American troops from the Korean Peninsula.

The decision to suspend this summer's military exercises "could be something that actually helps China and North Korea more than it helps the negotiation process with North Korea,” Collins says.

“North Korea and China will take any opportunity they get to drive a wedge between the US and South Korea,” she adds. “Their ultimate goal is to have the alliance broken up and for US military forces to leave the region.”

While Trump continues to test the US-South Korea relationship, Mr. Xi has been working to shore up China’s alliance with North Korea. On Wednesday, Kim concluded a two-day tour of China, his third visit since March, during which Xi lauded the “positive” outcome of the Singapore summit and promised strong support.

"No matter how the international and regional situations change, the firm stance of the [Chinese Communist Party] and the Chinese government on consolidating and developing the relations with [North Korea] remains unchanged,” Xi told Kim, according to Xinhua, China’s state news agency. “The Chinese people's friendship with the [North Korean] people remains unchanged, and China's support for the socialist [North Korea] remains unchanged.”