The Pentagon said Monday that a joint U.S.-South Korea military exercise is being canceled in line with President Donald Trump’s suspension of what he called “war games.”
“Consistent with President Trump's commitment and in concert with our Republic of Korea ally, the United States military has suspended all planning for this August's defensive ‘wargame’,” Dana White, the Pentagon’s chief spokesperson, said in a late afternoon statement.
“We are still coordinating additional actions” and “no decisions on subsequent wargames have been made,” White said.
The Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise typically begins in late August. Under the normal schedule for exercises that has existed for decades, the next major joint exercise would not take place until next year.
White added that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis would meet later this week with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton on the future of defensive cooperation with South Korea under the U.S.-South Korea alliance.
Earlier, South Korean media said that the Pentagon and South Korea’s Ministry of Defense would make an announcement on the exercises sometime this week.
"The South Korean and U.S. military authorities have been having close consultations over the combined exercises that U.S. President Donald Trump has said he will stop," a source said on condition of anonymity, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported.
The suspension reportedly would include a "snapback" clause to resume the exercises if North Korea stopped bargaining in good faith.
South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported that the upcoming Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise, which usually begins in late August, would be canceled as part of the suspensions.
Last week, Pompeo met in Seoul for an hour with Army Gen. Vincent Brooks, commander of the 28,500 U.S. troops in U.S. Forces Korea, to discuss the suspension.
The first major exercise to be affected would be Ulchi Freedom Guardian, the annual exercise mostly focused on computerized simulations rather than live-fire field exercises.
Last year Ulchi Freedom Guardian, which is primarily focused on computerized simulations rather than live-fire field exercises, involved about 50,000 ROK (Republic of Korea) forces and 17,500 from the U.S., including 3,000 flown into South Korea for the event.
For decades, the U.S. and South Korea have relied on the annual major exercises such as Ulchi Freedom Guardian, Foal Eagle and Max Thunder to hone their readiness against North Korean attack, but the U.S. has postponed and cut back the exercises this year as the opening to the North has developed.
At the request of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, the main catalyst in the ongoing dialogue with the North, Mattis postponed the start of the Foal Eagle air, sea and land exercises for the Winter Olympics and Paralympics in South Korea.
When Foal Eagle resumed, the exercise was cut short from the usual two months to about one month and U.S. aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines did not participate. The annual Max Thunder exercise went forward without U.S. B-52 bombers.
A joint declaration issued after the Singapore summit last week between Trump and Kim did not mention military exercises but Trump later announced that he was suspending what he called "war games" as too expensive and "provocative."
The Pentagon has not issued any estimates on the costs of the exercises.
Mattis said through a spokeswoman that he knew beforehand of Trump's intention to put a freeze on the exercises, but the announcement appeared to catch U.S. Forces Korea and the South Koreans by surprise. Trump's critics charged that he had made a concession to Kim for nothing in return.
"President Trump agreed to forego joint exercises with the South Koreans, which has been a bulwark of our defense policy for decades, without significant concessions like a concrete timeline for denuclearization," Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.
In an effort to reassure allies, Mattis made phone calls to his counterparts in South Korea and Japan last week.
Mattis said his call to South Korean Minister of National Defense Song Young-moo involved discussions of "mutual support to ongoing diplomatic efforts, to include how we are working together to fulfill the president's guidance on U.S.-ROK combined military exercises," according to a Pentagon readout of the call.
In a series of Tweets Sunday, Trump said that the suspension was his idea, and did not come at the suggestion of Kim, who has labeled the exercises practice for an invasion of North Korea.
"Holding back the 'war games' during the negotiations was my request because they are VERY EXPENSIVE and set a bad light during a good faith negotiation," Trump said. "Also, quite provocative. Can start up immediately if talks break down, which I hope will not happen!"
In another Tweet Monday, Trump said that "[If] President Obama (who got nowhere with North Korea and would have had to go to war with many millions of people being killed) had gotten along with North Korea and made the initial steps toward a deal that I have, the Fake News would have named him a national hero!"
To move the opening to North Korea forward, South Korean officials were meeting Monday with a North Korean delegation at the Peace House, a South Korean building in the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas.
The discussions will involve efforts to improve relations through joint sports teams, reunions of separated families, railway and road connections and forestry cooperation, South Korean officials said.
South Korea made also made clear that it will continue with its own defense readiness exercises during the suspension of the major military exercises with the U.S.
South Korea's Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard this week will stage two days of maritime drills, including amphibious landings, on its easternmost Dokdo islets, which are also claimed by Japan.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.