Downgrading U.S. military exercises with South Korea amounts to blinking first, if it’s intended to keep up the delicate momentum of negotiations with North Korea, but if you are the U.S. military trying to preserve security cooperation with an ally and a robust troop presence on that ally’s territory, the downgrade is a savvy compromise.
In any case, the downgrade’s happening.
At the collapsed Hanoi summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, President Donald Trump announced he walked away from a deal that couldn’t be nailed down. But he’s always been inclined to meet one of Kim’s major demands, an end to joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises.
In a New Year address, Kim declared joint military exercises with foreign forces “should no longer be permitted.” A subsequent article in a North Korean state news outlet denounced the U.S. for bringing to Korean waters “nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, and nuclear strategic bombers for exercises such as ‘Team Spirit,’ ‘Key Resolve,’ ‘Foal Eagle,’ ‘Ulchi Freedom Guardian,’ and others.” (The subtext here: “denuclearization” means the U.S. taking all those assets out of the area.)
That demand was followed by an article in the North Korean Party organ Rodong directly threatening South Korea with “severe consequences” if it took part in such joint exercises.
But Trump says it’s all a matter of money as he questions the cost of those exercises, the deployment of U.S. troops in South Korea, and the purpose they serve.
“We spent hundreds of millions of dollars on those exercises, and I hated to see it,” he told reporters after the summit imploded, adding that South Korea wasn’t paying its fair share for the exercises either. “I was telling the generals… ‘Look, you know, exercising is fun and it's nice and they play the war games.’ And I’m not saying it’s not necessary, because at some levels it is, but at other levels it’s not.”
So just days after the summit comes word from the Pentagon that the springtime version of those once highly touted military drills will now be mothballed for good, replaced by smaller, less visible, presumably less offensive and less expensive drills.
“They’re going to end named exercises and scale them down, but combined exercises will continue at multiple levels,” a former military officer briefed on the decision told me. “It’s because people think it’s less provocative and Trump thinks he is going to save money doing that.”
Suspending the traditional large exercises as part of peace talks has been done by previous U.S. administrations, but canceling them altogether, which was first reported by NBC News, is new.
The exercises don’t actually cost $100 million each time–it’s more like $14 million for the annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise in August, according to Pentagon officials. It’s roughly the same for each of the just-canceled spring drills, though each of the services also kicks in some extra cash, which makes final figures hard to come by.
It’s the latest compromise by U.S. military commanders who have struggled to convince Trump that U.S. troops in South Korea are necessary to deter North Korean aggression—and offset China’s designs to expand influence and control in the wider Pacific.
Trump said repeatedly on the campaign trail that he’d bring those troops home, and he’s never forgotten that pledge, one of his former top advisors told me.
Trump finds it “irresponsible” that past presidents haven’t dealt with Pyongyang before it had the potential to take out an American city with a nuke, the former administration official added. “He thinks that if we needed to have a war before to stop Kim, we should have had it,” the official said. Now, Kim has missiles that may or may not be able to carry nuclear weapons to the U.S., and an all-out-war can’t be risked, hence the flattery summits.
Trump wants to conclude a peace deal with Kim, then bring those troops home, the adviser said, making it prudent to plan for such a pullout.
A U.S. defense official said no such plans are being made, and White House and NSC officials declined to comment.
But one current and one former senior administration official described a past effort to dissuade Trump from a precipitous pullout from South Korea by outlining for him the massive price tag of a pullout of those roughly 28,500 U.S. troops.
The cost starts with finding space for 28,500 U.S. troops back in the states. The base realignment and closure (BRAC) process of streamlining military bases and selling off unneeded capacity means there’s simply no place to put that many troops and their gear. The military construction price tag on building space for them would be enormous.
“We don’t have excess space in bases in the U.S.,” said retired Col. David Maxwell, a Korea specialist with the Washington D.C.-based think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “It’s facilities headquarters, motor pool, barracks for unmarried soldiers.”
And the U.S. would be giving up Camp Humphreys, the largest military base outside the U.S.—roughly half the size of Washington, D.C. “It cost $10.7 billion to build Camp Humphreys, of which South Korea paid 92 percent,” Maxwell explained.
Not only is it valuable real estate; it’s also polluted. Parts of that base have been used to fix planes, with oil soaking deep into the soil, and other parts used for weapons exercises. And just about every acre would have to be “remediated”—turned back into the countryside it once was, as part of the U.S. agreement with Seoul.
While they didn’t give an exact figure, both the current and the former official said the cost was in the hundreds of billions of dollars range, not to mention the risk to U.S. influence in the region if U.S. troops withdraw.
And if there is a war, then you have to put the same number of troops back into the theater and then some—under heavy fire. Seoul is only about 40 miles from North Korea’s and, put aside nukes, in range of its massive artillery and Camp Humphreys is about 20 miles south of Seoul. To reestablish a presence equivalent to the one they have now the Americans would have to fight their way in.
The South Koreans have a highly capable force of roughly 650,000 active troops. But the 28,500 American troops are there to be a plug and play headquarters, with 14,000 devoted to running an expected influx of up to 725,000 U.S. troops who would be brought to the Korean Peninsula from Japan, Hawaii and Alaska, to back up the South Korean forces and to secure the north’s nuclear weapons materiel.
Beyond the cost of pulling out those troops, advisors have tried to impress upon Trump that the mere presence of those troops has kept Pyongyang from attacking, according to high-ranking North Korean defectors. “They’re not enough to win the war, but they are key to preventing the war,” Maxwell said. So the U.S. military maxim follows that, “If we don’t have troops in Korea, we’re going to have war in Korea.”
Yet just last June, after the Singapore summit with Kim, Trump had said there was no reason to have military exercises, because the U.S. would be bringing troops home.
Other Korea watchers believe Trump may be engaging in rhetorical flourishes that have succeeded in shaking down allies and convincing them to pay more.
The South Koreans were already paying in $855 million annually for the U.S. military’s stationing costs—all the utilities, electricity water, maintenance of facilities, and the salaries of the Korean workers who provide administration and technical and facilities support. Yet Trump managed to pull off a new one-year deal where Seoul is paying north of $925 million.
“Negotiator Trump is at play here… trying to squeeze our allies a little bit more,” said retired Lt. Gen. Tom Spoehr of the Heritage Foundation. But canceling those large exercises didn’t sit well with the general. The spring and summer drills are set up to mirror Pyongyang’s training cycle, in which they train in the summer, stop for the fall harvest, and then train from November through March, when the ground is frozen and therefore a good time to send tanks south to attack.
“The North Koreans have not changed their training schedule,” Spoehr said.