Don’t curtail joint drillsIn an alarming development, both South Korean and U.S. defense chiefs have decided to conclude their annual Key Resolve and Foal-Eagle military exercises. South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo and U.S. Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan reached the decision during a phone conversation over the weekend after the Feb. 28 U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi, Vietnam. The two countries decided to shorten the period of the Key Resolve drill to one week from two weeks. The Foal Eagle exercise also will be downscaled to the battalion level. The Key Resolve Exercise is a reinforcements drill in preparation of a crisis on the Korean Peninsula, while the Foal Eagle Exercise is a large-scale field maneuver training exercise. Last year, the two sides skipped the Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise in an effort to help accelerate denuclearization talks.
The joint military exercises are pillars of the alliance along with the ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command (CFC) and the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK). But if such pivotal drills are cut back, it will surely lead to a reduction of the USFK, which will certainly weaken the combat capability of the CFC. That’s like taking a test without studying.
President Moon Jae-in reiterated that the denuclearization of North Korea has nothing to do with the USFK. He should refer to the U.S. House of Representatives’ passage of a bill prohibiting U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration from reducing the size of the USFK to lower than 22,000. To the USFK, joint drills are indispensable to maintain an alliance.
The security situation can hardly be foreseen. In a stopover at a U.S. air base in Alaska after the Hanoi summit, President Trump stressed that the United States will fight if it has to. In a press conference shortly after the summit failed, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui threatened to “take a new path” unless the United States takes corresponding measures, such as lifting sanctions, which heralds a crisis on the Korean Peninsula at any time depending on the results of denuclearization talks. South Korea must prepare a worst-case scenario. We wonder why our defense minister hurriedly agreed to stop the joint drills over the phone.
The Hanoi summit once again confirmed the conundrum of addressing North Korean nuclear threats. If the denuclearization talks go smoothly, it can lead to peace and the reunification of the peninsula. If not, it can lead to a disaster. The Moon administration must augment joint defense systems with Uncle Sam: it must reconsider its hasty decision.
JoongAng Ilbo, March 4, Page 30