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US set to scale back military exercises with South Korea

Posted at 5:17 PM, Mar 01, 2019

The United States and South Korea are expected to announce in the coming days that annual military exercises between the two nations are to be scaled back, according to a US defense official.

The large-scale military exercises, known as Foal Eagle and Key Resolve, had been scheduled for this spring but according to the official, they will be scaled down to a small unit level and could involve virtual training.

Defense officials say they can achieve the necessary training goals through the scaled-back exercises.

The announcement is expected to come soon after President Donald Trump walked away from negotiations with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam.

The US has already suspended several larger military exercises as part of an effort to ease tensions with North Korea following the last year's Singapore summit between the two leaders.

In a news conference following last June's summit Trump called the exercises "provocative," stating, "It's inappropriate to be having war games."

Trump has also questioned the usefulness of the exercises, citing the disproportionate share of the cost borne by the US.

Former Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters last November that the 2019 version of the Foal Eagle exercise was being "reorganized a bit" to keep from "being harmful to diplomacy."

On Friday Defense Department officials refused to comment publicly about the status of the joint exercises but said they will proceed unless Trump specifically orders them canceled. "The (US-South Korean) alliance remains ironclad," said Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Eastburn, when asked about the exercises. "Our forces maintain a high state of military readiness and vigilance in full support of a diplomatically led effort to bring peace, prosperity and stability to the Korean Peninsula."

Earlier this month the US and South Korea reached a preliminary agreement on the cost of keeping nearly 30,000 troops in South Korea.

Under the revised Special Measures Agreement, South Korea would boost its financial contribution to nearly $1 billion, according to a State Department official and South Korean media. That's an increase from the roughly $800 million it had been paying per year during the previous five-year commitment.

In an early February interview with CBS, Trump said he has "no plans" to withdraw US troops from South Korea and claimed to have "never even discussed removing them," but said "maybe someday" he would withdraw US forces from the country.

"I mean, who knows. But, you know, it's very expensive to keep troops there," Trump said, even though US military officials have said it is cheaper to house those troops in South Korea than in the US.