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Pentagon Suspends Major War Game With South Korea

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon announced Monday that it was suspending a major military exercise with South Korea that President Donald Trump had criticized as a waste of money.

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Eric Schmitt
, New York Times

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon announced Monday that it was suspending a major military exercise with South Korea that President Donald Trump had criticized as a waste of money.

The decision to cancel — at least for now — the large-scale, long-planned Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise set for August had been expected after Trump’s surprise announcement in Singapore that he was ending joint military exercises as an inducement for North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

“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 ‘war game,’” the Pentagon spokeswoman, Dana W. White, said in a statement released on Monday night.

“We are still coordinating additional actions,” White added. “No decisions on subsequent war games have been made.”

Defense Department officials had said on Friday that they expected the exercise to be canceled or scaled back, and that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and his South Korean counterpart, Song Young-moo, discussed canceling the exercises during a telephone call Thursday.

The possibility was kicked around last week of shrinking the sprawling Ulchi Freedom Guardian down to a so-called tabletop exercise, which would be less visible but stop short of a cancellation. But Trump’s assertion that he was canceling “war games” made it difficult to conduct the exercise in any form without the risk that North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, would accuse the United States of failing to keep its word.

Mattis will meet at the Pentagon later this week with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the national security adviser, John R. Bolton, to discuss the issue, White said in the statement, adding that it will not affect exercises in the Pacific outside the Korean Peninsula.

Last year the Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise ran for 11 days and involved 17,500 U.S. forces, including about 3,000 from outside the peninsula, and 50,000 South Korean troops. The exercise includes computer simulations carried out in a large bunker south of the capital, Seoul, intended to check the allies’ readiness to repel aggressions by North Korea.

The announcement on Monday seemed to clear the way for routine training between U.S. and South Korean troops that takes place throughout the year, culminating in major war games in the spring and summer.

Current and former Pentagon officials and senior military officers have said the United States’ combat readiness would not suffer dramatically by skipping one major war game, but that could shift dramatically if several big exercises were canceled over time.

Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., a former head of the Pentagon’s Pacific Command and the administration’s nominee to be U.S. ambassador to South Korea, said at his Senate confirmation hearing last week that he supported suspending the war game in August.

“We should give exercises, major exercises, a pause to see if Kim Jong Un is in fact serious about his part of the negotiations,” Harris said. “I’ve spoken in the past about the need to bring Kim Jong Un to his senses and not to his knees.”

After the summit meeting in Singapore last week, Trump characterized the annual exercises as “very provocative” — a description that aligns with North Korea’s views and sharply deviates from those of his own Defense Department. The Pentagon has long insisted that the exercises are not meant to provoke North Korea; rather, military officials said, they underline the United States’ commitment to its allies in the region and seek to ensure that South Korea, in particular, can defend itself.

As of Monday, the Pentagon still did not have an answer to Trump’s other big complaint: the cost of the war games. Officials said that was still under review.

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