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Foal Eagle drill decision tied to second summit

Joint exercises may be carrot or stick in talks with Pyongyang
Dec 07,2018
Seoul and Washington will make a decision on whether to conduct its annual Foal Eagle joint military exercise scheduled for next spring taking into consideration a potential second North Korea-U.S. summit, according to multiple military sources Thursday.

“The United States is paying great attention to advancing North-U.S. relations,” a South Korean government source said. “Our military and government is also responding to the U.S. stance and having discussions taking into consideration the security situation on the Korean Peninsula.”

U.S. President Donald Trump recently said that he is planning to hold his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in January or February, making the suspension of the South-U.S. drill more likely.

Another government source here said, “What it means to make a decision to hold the drills linking it to the North-U.S. summit is that, in the case that North Korea does not come to the negotiating table, the Foal Eagle may be conducted.”

This source elaborated that South Korean and U.S. authorities are also prepared for a possibility that the Foal Eagle exercise could be conducted as usual, and that the budget to send troops and equipment to Korea has already been allocated by Washington. If the Foal Eagle exercise is held, it is expected to be on a smaller scale than last year.

Foal Eagle, field exercises involving ground, air, naval and special operations forces, is usually held in early spring during a similar period as the joint Key Resolve drills, which are computer-simulated war games. It is the only such large-scale field exercise between South Korea and the United States deploying troops here. However, the joint Key Resolve exercise is expected to be conducted next March as scheduled.

The 2018 Foal Eagle and Key Resolve exercises were postponed by Seoul and Washington at the beginning of this year to reduce tensions with Pyongyang during the PyeongChang Winter Olympics and Paralympics. They were eventually held in April, though Foal Eagle was scaled down in duration and scope compared to the previous year.

Regardless of whether the Foal Eagle drills this year are postponed or suspended, or its field training exercises (FTX) are reduced in scale, a command post exercise (CPX) under Key Resolve will still be held.

The South Korean Ministry of National Defense is also reviewing a plan for its military to hold solo field exercises without U.S. troops in the case Foal Eagle is suspended. Seoul has to build its capability for war readiness as it will eventually regain control of wartime operational control, or Opcon, from the United States.

Choi Hyun-soo, spokesperson for the Defense Ministry, did not confirm the suspension of the Foal Eagle exercise in a briefing on Thursday and only replied, “South Korea and the United States are conducting working-level discussions. When a decision on this matter is reached, we will make an announcement.”

Pyongyang has often protested the Seoul-Washington combined exercises, viewing them as a rehearsal for an invasion. The North’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Wednesday noted that during the historic North-U.S. summit in Singapore on June 12, there was discussion on “the matter of suspending the U.S.-South Korea joint military drills during the goodwill dialogue between the DPRK and the U.S.” DPRK is the acronym for North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The KCNA further reported that the two Koreas “are responsible for preserving peace of the peninsula” and “obliged to establish a permanent and durable peace mechanism of the peninsula at any cost by halting the joint military drills with outsiders, the cause of military tensions and conflict.”

U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis initially forecast that the Foal Eagle exercise would scaled down last month. He told reporters on Nov. 21, “Foal Eagle is being reorganized” to keep it “at a level that will not be harmful to diplomacy.” The Pentagon chief noted, “We are not canceling exercises. We are realigning one exercise.” On Saturday, Mattis, speaking to Fox News on national defense strategy, said, “In Korea, our diplomats speak from a position of unquestioned strength, as they endeavor to achieve the complete, verified denuclearization of North Korea.”

On the status of North Korea’s nuclear and missile threat following the June 12 summit between its leader Kim and U.S. President Trump, Mattis said, “It has now been shown to be clearly in the diplomats’ hands.”

“We have been able to actually reduce some of our exercises as a sincere measure, to say we want the diplomat to succeed,” said Mattis. “None of us thought this would be easy, that it would be automatic, that it would follow a script, so we’re going to have to roll up our sleeves and keep at it.”

He went on to note that the United States is backed by its allies and UN Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on the North and added, “The bottom line is, if they want out from underneath the UN Security Council resolution sanctions, they’re going to have to make progress.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was scheduled to hold bilateral talks Thursday with South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha to continue to discuss ways for Seoul and Washington to coordinate together, based on the results of the summit between Trump and President Moon Jae-in last week in Argentina, “on the process toward the denuclearization and establishment of peace on the Korean Peninsula,” according to Foreign Ministry spokesman Noh Kyu-duk.

Kang was visiting Washington to lead the South Korean delegation to the funeral of former U.S. President George H.W. Bush.

BY LEE CHUL-JAE, SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]