War games to test detente with Kim

War games to test detente with Kim
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The United States and South Korea will kick off joint military exercises Sunday that were initially delayed to calm tensions on the Korean Peninsula during the Winter Olympics.

The war games are now starting at a critical time as the Trump administration prepares for a historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. South Korean President Moon Jae-in is also prepping for his own summit with Kim.

The drills typically inflame tensions on the peninsula, with Kim issuing apocalyptic threats and conducting nuclear and missile tests in response. But Kim told the South Koreans he won’t protest this year’s exercise as part of his deal to get a meeting with President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Trump cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Ocasio-Cortez claps back at Trump after he cites her in tweet rejecting impeachment MORE.

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“Foal Eagle is not an issue any more,” said Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, referring to the annual exercises. “I thought a couple months back that could be something that tips us on the path to war, but the North Koreans have essentially made promises that they will not complain about Foal Eagle as long as the United States and South Korea don’t do a lot to publicize it.”

Indeed, the Pentagon has been tight-lipped about what this year’s exercises will entail.

Earlier this month, the Pentagon issued a four-sentence statement announcing the April 1 start date of Foal Eagle and its sister exercise, Key Resolve. Unlike previous years, the statement did not tout the number of troops expected to participate, only saying the exercises will be done “at a scale similar to that of the previous years.” South Korea’s defense ministry released a similarly vague statement.

Key lawmakers have been stressing the importance of going ahead with the war games even while diplomacy is pursued.

“I think it’s very important to continue to exercise with our close allies facing a very aggressive threat, and it is important to continue those exercises,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryOvernight Defense: Pompeo blames Iran for oil tanker attacks | House panel approves 3B defense bill | Trump shares designs for red, white and blue Air Force One House panel approves 3B defense policy bill House panel approves 3B defense policy bill MORE (R-Texas) told reporters last week. “It improves both our militaries, and it also makes a message that we will not be divided, and this is a good time for that.”

North Korea previously sought a so-called freeze-for-freeze, in which the United States and South Korea would stop their military exercises to get Pyongyang to stop its testing.

North Korea considers the drills a rehearsal for invasion and has lashed out, for example, by test firing four ballistic missiles at the start of last year’s Foal Eagle.

Foal Eagle is one of the largest military exercises in the world and typically involves live-fire training, tank movements and sea and air drills. Key Resolve, meanwhile, is a computer-simulated desktop exercise typically involving about 12,000 U.S. and 10,000 South Korean troops.

Last year for Foal Eagle, about 3,600 U.S. service members deployed to join the 28,000 U.S. troops already based in South Korea, for a total of about 300,000 U.S. and South Korean military personnel. 

The 2017 Foal Eagle also involved the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier, strategic bombers and a fast-attack nuclear-powered U.S. submarine.

The Pentagon has not detailed what equipment it is deploying this year, but has also sought to downplay reading too much into those decisions.

“Aircraft carriers and their strike groups rotate on long-planned schedules,” Joint Staff Director Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie told reporters earlier this month when asked about the Vinson leaving the region during the thaw. “So no particular linkage there. I would tell you that every year we conduct a robust series of exercises with our Korean partners, and I don't think this year will be any different than those that have occurred in the past.”

Asked generally about strategic bomber flights in the region, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said Thursday he hasn’t been asked to do anything differently on his end since the thaw in tensions, though he said how bombers are used are more the purview of the combatant commander, Cabinet secretaries and the president.

“What we do militarily is in direct support of the pressure campaign,” Goldfein told the Defense Writers Group. “And so ensuring that I’ve got a continuous bomber presence forward, that has not changed. Ensuring that I’ve got reach-back capability for bombers as required by the combatant commander or the secretary of State or the secretary of Defense or the president has not changed."

"What we focus on is to ensure that we have the optimal readiness required to be able to meet the combatant commander’s requirements," he continued. "And so really for us at the service level, there has not been any change at all.”

Kazianis said he was told by South Korean sources that part of the agreement ahead of the Moon-Kim and Trump-Kim summits was for the United States and South Korea to minimize publicity of the exercises. He also cited the low fanfare for the delivery of South Korea’s first F-35s this week as evidence of Washington and Seoul doing its part to lower the heat.

“Donald Trump would have to go out there and fire the tanks himself” for the exercises to be an issue this year, Kazianis said.

But Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinProposed bipartisan kidney legislation takes on kidney disease epidemic in America Lawmakers raise security concerns about China building NYC subway cars House votes to boost retirement savings MORE (D-Md.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he thinks it would be more helpful in advance of the Trump-Kim summit if the Pentagon were more transparent about what the exercises will entail.

“I just would hope as we are looking at the potential for diplomacy that we recognize the sensitivities of all issues involving the region, including joint exercises,” he said last week. “I would suggest that there be more transparency than we’ve done in the past so that there’s some confidence-building leading up to discussions without jeopardizing the regional security issues.”

Kim though, by all accounts, is taking his commitments and preparations for the summits seriously, despite North Korean state media still not confirming the promises he’s made. Analysts pointed to his trip this week to Beijing to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping, Kim’s first trip abroad since taking power in 2011.

As for Kim dropping his long-standing calls for an end to U.S.-South Korean military exercises, analysts say, he has bigger demands on his mind.

“He has made not complaining about war games a concession, so now it’s our turn for a concession,” retired Col. Richard Klass, a board member at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, said of Kim’s thinking.

Kazianis predicted potential demands including a peace treaty to officially end the Korean War, full diplomatic recognition of North Korea, billions of dollars of economic aid or a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from the peninsula.

“What Kim is going to ask is going to be astronomically high,” Kazianis said. “He could really start going off the rails.”