Much has been made of President Trump’s post-summit announcement that he was cancelling joint war games with South Korea. In light of his recent campaign of “maximum pressure” and last summer’s threats of “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” such a conciliatory move caught many off guard, including the South Koreans and perhaps even the U.S. military. While some commentators have argued that the cancellation represents a premature concession, or a significant departure from past policy, it is important to recognize that the U.S. and ROK have a long history of using joint exercises to bring North Korea to the negotiating table…it’s just that usually South Korea takes point.
Look just to the past year, when the United States used large-scale joint exercises with ROK forces to apply pressure and to signal its readiness for direct conflict with the North. Then, in December, the annual Foal Eagle exercise was delayed at South Korea’s request to create space for dialogue with the North. These talks ultimately led to this week’s Trump-Kim summit.
This was hardly the first time the United States cancelled or postponed a drill for the sake of starting dialogue with North Korea. In 1976, the U.S. and South Korea held the first Operation Team Spirit, an annual exercise that came to include more than 200,000 U.S. and South Korean troops. The drill became a major point of contention for Pyongyang, which often claims that such exercises are preparations for invasion of the North. But in 1992, after announcing the unilateral withdrawal of all nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula, President George H.W. Bush and ROK President Roh offered to forgo the year’s Operation Team Spirit— if North Korea would participate in negotiations and admit IAEA inspectors to verify its compliance with the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT. (Seoul warned, however, that “the Team Spirit exercises can be resumed at any time.”) The offer to cancel the drill created space for direct talks between the North and South, and made possible the signing of the South-North Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Later that year, IAEA inspections uncovered an underground waste site and inconsistencies in DPRK’s declarations. The two allies announced plans for Team Spirit 1993, although South Korea again offered to suspend it if the North would submit to additional inspections. Pyongyang let the deadline pass, and the exercise went on as scheduled. North Korea retaliated against the drills and IAEA demands for access by announcing its intention to withdraw from the NPT. In response, the U.S. and South Korea offered to cancel Team Spirit permanently, provided North Korea rejoin negotiations and submit to IAEA inspections. The North agreed and suspended its withdrawal.
In March 1993, Team Spirit was permanently canceled as a gesture of goodwill. But North Korea continued to bar IAEA inspectors from its nuclear waste facilities well into the spring of 1994. Secretary of State Warren Christopher then affirmed that Team Spirit would be resurrected that year, and South Korean President Kim Young Sam said that Team Spirit would resume in November of 1994, “unless the North shows sincerity to resolve the nuclear problem.” Shortly after, President Clinton announced the deployment of the Pacific Fleet and additional air defense systems to the Korean peninsula APP. Simultaneously, hundreds of combat planes were placed on alert in Okinawa, prepared to strike the Yongbyon nuclear facility. This show of force and the promise to end Team Spirit, paired with former President Jimmy Carter’s diplomatic visit to North Korea, worked to convince North Korea to comply with IAEA regulations and negotiate the Agreed Framework, leading to years of high-level negotiations. After canceling Team Spirit, the U.S. and ROK established additional drills, including Foal Eagle and Ulchi Focus Lens, which used more computer simulations and focused on command-and-control and logistical operations. As a result, the U.S. was able to use Team Spirit as a bargaining chip without sacrificing force readiness.
Another example of this type of overture occurred in the final months of the Clinton administration, when South Korea announced that it would not send troops to participate in Ulchi Focus Lens 2000. Rather than explicitly targeting North Korea during high-level negotiations, ROK forces focused their exercises on internal security scenarios of “military preparedness in the event of a national emergency and in countering national disasters.” While the Clinton administration’s diplomatic efforts ultimately fell apart, they demonstrated the utility of military exercises when used in combination with negotiations to apply pressure and demonstrate good will.
Throughout the George W. Bush administration’s efforts to restart negotiations, North Korea routinely objected to joint military drills, characterizing them as part of a “hostile policy” and a “nuclear threat.” In 2001, for example, the North Korean Ambassador to the UN, Lee Hyong Chol, told the General Assembly that the United States would need to resume the negotiating position of the Clinton administration before the North would agree to engage in further talks. He stated, “It is totally irrational to say the United States deploys huge armed forces around the Korean Peninsula and conducts large-scale military exercises against us to advance peace, whereas it is a ‘threat to peace’ that we take self-defense measures to cope with the U.S. military threat.”
The U.S. and ROK have long maintained that such exercises are intended to deter aggression by the North, and are thus defensive in purpose. As a result, much of the recent commentary has focused on the fact that Trump described the drills as “provocative,” appearing to validate North Korea’s view in a significant departure from more traditional U.S. rhetoric. While it is often tempting to view the U.S. military as a benign actor on the world stage, any realist will tell you that deployments of nuclear-capable stealth bombers, carriers, or expeditionary strike groups are bound to make our adversaries nervous. This is, in fact, a critical part of the strategic logic of military exercises since effective deterrence depends on the perception of a credible threat. However, just as drills can persuade North Korea that military conflict with the U.S. is a losing proposition, cancelling the exercises can be used to create leverage in negotiations, defuse tensions, and project confidence.
Trump’s offer to forgo upcoming drills this year was not an unconditional concession. On the contrary, the unilateral suspension of upcoming exercises was explicitly conditional, and meant to communicate that the Trump administration is receptive to dialogue “unless and until we see the future negotiation is not going along like it should” (emphasis added). Should talks with North Korea deteriorate, exercises can promptly be resumed, just as they were in 1993. This effectively converts the exercises from a tool of coercion to a tool of diplomacy.
Additionally, several former officials have expressed concern that the cancellation of the exercise will erode force readiness. However, as a U.S. Forces Korea spokeswoman explained, the exercises “happen every year so the logistics have been ironed out over the years and it’s easy enough to flex as needed.” There is little doubt that joint exercises will continue in some form, and past exercises indicate that the U.S. and ROK forces have made robust preparations for contingencies on the Korean Peninsula. Thus, concerns about the erosion of force readiness are premature, if not alarmist.
From a diplomatic standpoint, military exercises convey commitment to our allies and preparedness for war. If the South Koreans were not consulted in advance of Trump’s announcement, this would indeed be a serious oversight, albeit consistent with Trump’s “America First” approach to foreign policy. In the past, South Korea has taken the lead on offering to cancel drills, but given the unprecedented nature of the face-to-face meeting, it is unsurprising that the U.S. made the offer directly. Nevertheless, the U.S. must be careful that confidence-building measures are conducted in lock-step with our allies.
Joint exercises have played an indispensable role in persuading North Korea to come to the negotiating table. Both the U.S./DPRK-Agreed Framework in 1994 and the North-South Summit in 2018 were made possible through the use of exercises as both a carrot and a stick. The cancellation and scaling back of joint exercises is a low-cost, revocable gesture of goodwill that clearly carries weight with North Korea. While exercises are an essential part of force readiness and interoperability, North Korea has consistently linked its willingness to participate in negotiations, and its development of nuclear weapons, to the perceived threat posed by U.S./ROK military exercises. Thus, when the United States wishes to engage the North in negotiations, it’s no wonder that exercises are one of the first cards on the table.