The Pentagon, along with the South Korean government, will decide by next month whether to go ahead with annual military exercises or cancel them as denuclearization talks continue with North Korea.
The announcement that a decision was pending came as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and his counterpart, South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo, met this week to discuss issues including the Foal Eagle annual drills.
Over the summer, President Donald Trump canceled the exercises and said they were too expensive following his historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in June.
In an interview, Jeong said that American and South Korean military officials will conduct a review of the upcoming exercises in November. “They will make the final decision on any major exercises in the next year before the first of December,” he said, the Washington Examiner reported.
Analysis: Some analysts have expressed concerns that by continuing to cancel Foal Eagle, the two militaries will lose vital interoperability skills. For his part, Defense Secretary James Mattis said that hasn’t happened.
“We are not right now concerned with a loss of combat capability. Clearly, as we go forward, we’ll have to make adaptations to ensure we don’t lose that capability,” Mattis said. “This is not a total suspension of all collaboration and military exercises. Certainly, large ones were put on hold, suspended temporarily in order to give the diplomats the best possible effort because we were making a good-faith effort on the military side.”
Granted, Mattis would never come right out and say that our combat capabilities have eroded or that the U.S. military — and the South Korean military, for that matter — are not ready to engage North Korea if the order to attack were given.
But in addition to the erosion of combat interoperability, some also believe Kim is using negotiations to better prepare his own forces and to buy time to complete his country’s nuclear weapons research and development. Not only that, but according to 38 North, Pyongyang sees the ongoing sanctions leveled against it by the U.S. as impeding further progress on talks.
There are no clear signs that the North is returning to its old provocations such as testing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. But there also hasn’t been much in the way of visible progress regarding denuclearization, either.
That said, canceling major military exercises again for next year may be enough to convince the North Koreans that the U.S. is serious about de-escalating tensions so that negotiations can continue.