President Donald Trump denied that the order to cancel war games with South Korea was a concession offered during nuclear talks with the North, saying he “made that decision long ago” to save money.
He was reacting Monday to criticism that the decision fulfilled a longtime demand by the North, which hates the exercises, while getting little in return after last week’s second summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un collapsed without agreement.
“The military drills, or war games as I call them, were never even discussed in my mtg w/ Kim Jong Un of NK—FAKE NEWS!” he tweeted on Monday. “I made that decision long ago because it costs the U.S. far too much money to have those ‘games,’ especially since we are not reimbursed for the tremendous cost!”
The Pentagon announced Saturday it was shelving the springtime drills known as Key Resolve/Foal Eagle and replacing them with smaller-scale training drills that began on Monday.
It said the decision was made jointly with South Korea and “reflected our desire to reduce tension and support our diplomatic efforts to achieve complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a final, fully verified manner.”
The move was widely seen as a concession to the North, which considers the exercises to be rehearsals for an invasion and frequently lashes out against them.
Trump has long complained about the cost of military exercises as part of his demands for U.S. allies to pay more for their own defense, including South Korea and NATO. But he also has called them “provocative” and linked them to efforts to persuade the North to relinquish its nuclear weapons, noting on Sunday that “reducing tensions with North Korea at this time is a good thing!”
The president insisted the drills didn’t come up during his talks with Kim on Feb. 27-28 in Hanoi, Vietnam, which stalled due to differences on the scope of sanctions relief for the North and the definition of denuclearization.
The issue first came to the fore after the first U.S.-North Korean summit on June 12 in Singapore as Trump surprised allies and some of his own aides by announcing he was suspending the military exercises amid negotiations with the North.
The Pentagon’s decision took that a step further by saying it decided “to conclude the KEY RESOLVE and FOAL EAGLE series of exercises.” It didn’t say anything about the other major drills known as Ulchi Freedom Guardian, which are usually held in the fall but were canceled last year.
Retired Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr, director of the Center for National Defense at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative U.S. think tank, called it “the wrong decision for the wrong reasons.”
“A typical exercise costs around $14 million — not a trivial amount, but necessary in order to practice military coordination with allies and iron out the wrinkles that inevitably emerge in complex military operations,” Spoehr wrote in a commentary published Sunday on the foundation’s The Daily Signal website.
“The best military is of little value unless it is properly trained. And by canceling, not just suspending, these exercises, the U.S. is unilaterally lowering its readiness,” he said, noting that the North Koreans have not changed their training cycle or diminished their nuclear weapons capabilities.
The United States has some 28,500 servicemembers stationed in South Korea, which technically remains at war with the North after their 1950-53 conflict ended in an armistice instead of a peace treaty.
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