The Pentagon made it official Monday evening, as the U.S. canceled the upcoming August military drills with South Korea at the behest of President Donald Trump, as he promised North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un when the two met in Singapore.
“Consistent with President Trump's commitment and in concert with our Republic of Korea ally, the United States military has suspended all planning for this August's defensive ‘wargame’ (Freedom Guardian),” Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said in a statement Monday evening, adding that no decisions have been made yet on other exercises.
Ulchi Freedom Guardian, as it’s called, is a computer simulation of an attack by North Korea that helps newly arrived U.S. commanders learn how to fight alongside their South Korean counterparts. Current and former U.S. officials said they’ll have to make do with U.S.-only simulations behind closed doors, which they say won’t hurt readiness that much -- as long as canceling exercises for Pyongyang doesn’t become a habit.
“The problem is, we’re afraid Trump wants to get rid of troops there altogether,” said one current U.S. official over the move. The officials spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to discuss the president’s decision publicly.
Pentagon spokeswoman White even borrowed Trump’s use of the phrase “wargames” to describe the military drills with U.S. treaty ally South Korea, after a week of debate in the military community about the president’s use of a phrase that echoes the propaganda of the enemy those games are designed to defend against. It rubbed some current and former U.S. officials the wrong way, especially when followed by North Korea’s release of a video showing Trump’s impromptu salute to a North Korean general at the summit, a spur-of-the-moment decision that gave Pyongyang a propaganda gift.
The White House press secretary later described it as the polite thing to do, but current and former U.S. officials who have worked to brief Trump complain it’s part of a pattern of the commander in chief not heeding lessons they’ve tried to impart.
The officials say he can quickly lose focus in briefings on complex subjects, so they try to find creative – and brief – ways to teach him. One close adviser recalled attempts early in the administration to brief the president on why U.S. troops are based across the Middle East. Trump’s response, paraphrased: I don’t want to hear it. Get ‘em out.
The advisers regrouped next door at the National Security Council, and thought about what would “hook” the president’s attention. They devised a multi-part lecture, roughly 15 minutes per lesson, on how the U.S. does business across the Middle East, including how many American jobs and profit that produces. Through that lens of the America-First bottom line, the president listened, and was more amenable later when his national security team asked to keep troops in Syria and Afghanistan.
Trump has heard similar explanations of why the U.S. carries out public military exercises in the South China Sea: to message North Korea that this is what you’ll face if you attack; to message China that this is our ally so stop trying to expand your presence in the South China Sea; and to show other allies like Japan that the U.S. military might stands ready to protect them too.
Despite their efforts, the officials who spoke to The Daily Beast fear the president doesn’t seem to understand the purpose of those military exercises.
The spring and summer U.S. and South Korean drills roughly mirror North Korea’s own military training cycle. The North Koreans train in the summer, stop for harvest in the fall, then begin a winter training cycle from November through March, which is considered the optimal time for North Korea to attack – in large part, because ground is still frozen hard from the winter, so it’s more passable for tanks and other heavy military vehicles than it is later in the year, when South Koreans soften much of the countryside with water-filled rice paddies.
That’s why the U.S. and South Korean militaries always planned for a big military exercise in March – to deter the North from attacking in the spring.
Last year’s Ulchi Freedom Guardian lasted 11 days and included 17,500 U.S. troops as well as troops from Australia, Britain, Canada and Colombia, according to the AP. The exercise is a computer simulation of a North Korean attack with a public, and secret components. The visible part are the jets and bombers that fly in aerial displays, and the ships that coordinate among them who would attack, who would defend and where.
Behind closed doors, South Korean officials get to meet new U.S. commanders, many of whom rotate annually. They set up a joint command center, plus an air command center and a special operations command center. They test out how they would share intelligence, make and share decisions on how to respond to the threat, and coordinate their militaries.
As a negotiating tactic, suspending or delaying such exercises has been done before by previous administrations. It’s a big showy “gimme” to hand over in contentious talks, because policymakers think of the exercises as fairly easy to resume. The Trump administration has already played diplomatic games when it announced the timing of the spring exercises – Foal Eagle and Key Resolve – announcing that they would be “delayed” for a month at the request of the South Korean president, to foster better relations with the North.
The drills are actually planned 5 years out, and planners had known years ago when the Olympics would be held in South Korea, one current and one former U.S. official said, so they’d long ago planned them for later in the year.
But the U.S. and South Korean military leadership hadn’t announced that decision — made years earlier — to delay the games, so both were able to use the “delay” to their diplomatic advantage.
But Trump went further than that after his Singapore summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, when he announced the suspension of the August drill. He attacked the concept of the military drills altogether, and touted how much money the U.S. would save, adding that he thinks the drills are very “provocative.”
Skipping one exercise likely won’t harm readiness, one current and one former official said. But they warned that there are real-world consequences to doing away with the drills, which involve every branch of the U.S. military as well as regional allies.
For now, they’re trying to figure out how they’ll train newly arrived commanders to defend South Korea -- in a way that won’t offend Pyongyang.
The Pentagon and NSC did not respond to requests for comment.