On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis told reporters that the upcoming U.S.-South Korea Foal Eagle military exercises, scheduled for spring 2019, would be modified to allow ongoing U.S. and South Korean diplomacy with North Korea to continue uninterrupted.
“Foal Eagle is being reorganized a bit to keep it at a level that will not be harmful to diplomacy,” Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Mattis did not clarify how exactly the exercises would be scaled back, but his decision implies that the alliance would not suspend the drills altogether.
North Korea and the United States are working toward a second leaders’ level summit meeting between U.S. President Donald J. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The summit is slated to take place some time in the spring.
The alliance is expected to announce a decision by the end of the month on the specific modifications to the exercises.
Following their meeting at the 50th annual U.S.-South Korea Security Consultative Meeting at the end of October, South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo had said that the alliance would take a decision on the scope of the exercises by December 1.
Foal Eagle, along with the Key Resolve computerized command post exercise, is the largest exercise currently undertaken by U.S. and South Korean troops on the Korean Peninsula. The 2017 iteration of Foal Eagle involved some 11,500 U.S. personnel and 290,000 South Korean troops.
North Korea has in the past complained about the drills as a ruse toward an invasion of its territory and staged its own ballistic missile exercises and other military drills in response. In 2017, North Korea launched four extended-range Scud ballistic missiles at the start of the Foal Eagle exercise.
This year, the Foal Eagle and Key Resolve exercises were scaled down as inter-Korean diplomacy ramped up following North Korea’s outreach to South Korea at the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games. Foal Eagle was delayed to begin on April 1 to allow the Winter Olympics and the Paralympic Games to fully conclude before the exercises began.
While North Korea did not vocally complain about the modified Foal Eagle/Key Resolve exercises this year, it has recently complained about the resumed U.S.-South Korea Korea Marine Exchange Program (KMEP) exercises.
After the United States and South Korea resumed that program after suspending two exchanges earlier during the summer, North Korea announced that it had conducted a test of what it claimed was a new type of “tactical” weapon. It did not say if the test was spurred by the resumed drills.