It’s Official: U.S., South Korea Suspend ‘Ulchi Freedom Guardian’ Joint Military Exercise

South Korean soldiers participate in an anti-terror drill on the sidelines of the Ulchi Freedom Guardian joint military drills with the US
AFP/JUNG Yeon-Je

South Korea’s Defense Ministry announced on Tuesday that the annual “Ulchi Freedom Guardian” joint military exercise with U.S. troops has been suspended as part of ongoing negotiations with North Korea.

Defense Ministry spokeswoman Choi Hyun-soo said the decision to suspend the exercise was made by both the U.S. and South Korean governments, in the interest of maintaining the “momentum” of talks with North Korea.

“The South Korean and the US defense ministries would maintain close coordination to make sure there is no daylight in the combined forces’ readiness posture,” the Defense Ministry said.

Ulchi Freedom Guardian is the large summertime exercise for American and South Korean forces, originally scheduled for August. Last year’s event involved 17,500 American and 50,000 South Korean troops, plus soldiers from several other countries that fought in the Korean War, including the U.K. and Canada.

North Korea loudly criticized the 2017 UFG exercise and expressed its anger by launching an intercontinental ballistic missile into Japanese airspace.

The Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise has been held annually since 1976. As the South Korean Defense Ministry reiterated in its statement, the exercise is entirely defensive in nature, contrary to North Korea’s constant assertions that it is a dress rehearsal for invading the North.

Two other major exercises scheduled for the spring, Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, have already been completed for 2018 after they were delayed to accommodate the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

No official word has come from either Seoul or Washington about whether next year’s Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, or any other smaller exercises planned for the interim, will be canceled. The Diplomat finds it likely that any future Korean exercises that do occur will limit or forego the use of long-range strategic bombers and stealth fighters, which North Korea views as particularly menacing.

Chief Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said on Monday that “no decisions on subsequent war games have been made,” and there are no plans to delay or cancel any exercises in the Pacific region outside of the Korean peninsula.

According to the UK Guardian, the decision to cancel Ulchi Freedom Guardian was made after “long discussions between the secretary of state, Jim Mattis, and his counterpart in Seoul, Song Young-moo.”

These discussions must have begun soon after President Donald Trump emerged from his summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and announced that “very provocative” wargames would be suspended “unless and until we see the future negotiation is not going like it should.”

The Japan Times predicts the cancellation of UFG will “stoke concern in Japan,” which has been worried that suspending U.S.-South Korean exercises will jeopardize regional security by negative impacting military readiness and removing an impressive demonstration of military power that was meant for more than just North Korean eyes.

Japanese officials are also quoted fearing that the U.S. could cancel joint exercises with Japan, or even withdraw forces from the region and alter the balance of power in the Pacific. Tokyo officials were uncomfortable with Japan’s limited input into negotiations with North Korea and alarmed by President Trump’s description of wargames as a financial burden for the United States.

“Since the summit, North Korea has done nothing. The announced suspension does not fit with the consideration that should be given,” an anonymous senior Japanese Defense Ministry official complained.

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