The decision to suspend several large-scale annual military exercises on the Korean Peninsula was a prudent one, and the pundits who say otherwise are simply repeating a meme, the top U.S. military commander on the peninsula said Wednesday.
In March the Pentagon announced it would be replacing exercises Key Resolve and Foal Eagle with smaller training iterations tailored to specific missions.
“This was a prudent action in support of diplomacy," Army Gen. Robert Abrams said at the Association of the U.S. Army’s 2019 Land Forces of the Pacific Symposium. "Following those suspensions, we have worked to evolve our exercise, design and execution by tuning four dials: size, scope, volume and timing, bringing us into harmony with ongoing diplomatic efforts.”
Abrams pointed to the elimination of some guard posts along the Demilitarized Zone, the expansion of a no-fly zone and the elimination of armed guards at the Joint Security Area as evidence of decreasing tensions that show the diplomatic effort is prevailing.
“Now, let me be very clear about the following: We continue to conduct combined training and exercises at echelon, from Combined Forces Command to our combined components, all the way down to unit-level," Abrams said. “Any suggestions to the contrary — and I’ve heard them all — are simply not true. This is a meme, most often repeated by theorists and pundits who simply do not know the ground truth.”
North Korea has long-sought the end of the large-scale exercises, which it views as a threat, saying that they must be suspended if the U.S. and South Korea want peace on the peninsula.
Opting to scale back the drills is part of President Donald Trump’s plan to foster a more positive relationship with North Korea.
Abrams said the new, smaller exercises are better suited to the current operational environment.
Before, large-scale exercises were held for two primary reasons: a high-profile deterrence campaign, and to maintain core wartime competencies, Abrams said.
Both of those needs will still be met, he added, but with a "lower profile in the information space or reduced volume.”
Trump previously said that certain “war games” with South Korea and other allies are a waste of money, and defended the idea of scaling them back.
“The president can instantly start the joint exercises again with South Korea, and Japan, if he so chooses. If he does, they will be far bigger than ever before,” the White House said through the president’s Twitter account in August.
In February, Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un for the second time to discuss denuclearization. The summit was cut short and no agreement was reached because the North Korean leader wanted to end all sanctions against his beleaguered country, according to the White House.
Some pundits asserted that the summit was a failure.
“Regardless of your personal feelings about what came out of Hanoi, the facts are the door is still open and the sides are still talking," Abrams said. “It’s not well publicized, but those are the facts.”
As an example, Abrams pointed to the Comprehensive Military Agreement signed in September between North Korea and South Korea, which he said “has led to a palpable reduction in tensions on the peninsula."
“Ten guard posts on each side have been destroyed,” Abrams said. And although hundreds of guard posts remain, both sides were able to personally verify the destruction of those 10 posts in December, he added. “It’s a small ink-blot of confidence building and trust building.”
The size of the no-fly zone for unmanned aerial vehicles, rotary-wing aircraft and fixed-wing aircraft along the eastern half of the DMZ has also been increased, Abrams said.
To top it off, the Joint Security Area of the DMZ — the only place where North and South Korean forces stand face-to-face — is also no longer the tense location of past years.
All but two guard posts have been closed there, all 35 guards on each side must now be unarmed and the two sides share the same security footage feeds.
Those changes are huge, according to Abrams. Such cooperation was “unthinkable in the past," he said.
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter who has covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq. Follow on Twitter @Kyle_Rempfer