The U.S. and South Korea said Sunday that they will scrap two large-scale joint military exercises that have been held annually.
The Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises were held in March and April of every year to maintain military readiness in the face of a North Korean provocation.
Last year, the two allies also canceled large-scale joint military drills to pacify North Korea as denuclearization talks continued, but this year's decision came even as a summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump in Hanoi failed dismally.
The Defense Ministry said the decision was made in a telephone call between Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo and Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan. A military source said the measure "was agreed following the U.S.' position."
Trump has repeatedly said that the drills are too costly, while the South Korean government was eager to agree in order to help U.S.-North Korea maintain dialogue channels. "That was my position long before I became president," Trump tweeted days after he and Kim failed to reach a denuclearization agreement at the summit.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff and Combined Forces Command said a small-scale drill will be held until early next week instead to maintain troop readiness in case of a North Korean attack.
"Instead of full-scale retaliation training against a simulated North Korean attack, the aim [of the drill] is to defend the area south of the demilitarized zone," a military source here said. "The focus is not to provoke North Korea."
The Foal Eagle drills began in 1975. "Among the Foal Eagle military exercises, some drills involving groups smaller than battalions will continue to be held during the year," the source added. However, any drills targeting North Korean special forces infiltrating South Korea and combined exercises will apparently be scrapped.
An amphibious landing exercise called the Ssangyong Exercise, which was held in April every year, is highly likely to be scrapped as well. The Max Thunder joint air force exercises and Vigilant Aced drills are also expected to be canceled, while the Freedom Guardian drills were already canceled last year. But the JCS said, "We are still capable of holding a wide range of joint military exercises if necessary."
The permanent scrapping of the two major drills was unexpected. A high-ranking military officer here said, "The decision was made by the U.S. and [South] Korea, but the U.S. was more aggressive about the decision."
Jeong told the Chosun Ilbo, "There are many complicated issues, but the military reached the decision to help dialogue continue with North Korea. Although the names of some exercises can be changed, there are no problems when it comes to actual military readiness."
However, military insiders worry that scrapping the drills will hurt military readiness. Shin Beom-chul at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said, "At present, the U.S. Forces Korea are on rotational assignments and live-simulation exercises are very important."
Military choppers are grounded at U.S. base Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province on Sunday. /Yonhap