SEOUL/WASHINGTON • The United States and South Korea agreed to end their biggest annual joint military drills in a bid to ease tensions with North Korea, a move that comes just days after US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un failed to reach an agreement on denuclearisation at a summit in Vietnam.
US Acting Secretary of Defence Patrick Shanahan and South Korean Defence Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo decided to conclude the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle series of the exercises, the Pentagon said on Saturday.
They will be replaced by a modified exercise called Dong Maeng, or "Alliance", running from today to March 12 that will focus on "strategic, operational and tactical aspects of general military operations", the Combined Forces Command said in a separate statement.
The move "reflected our desire to reduce tension and support our diplomatic efforts to achieve complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula in a final, fully verified manner", the Pentagon said.
South Korea's Defence Ministry confirmed the decision, saying it was done to pursue "permanent peace on the Korean peninsula".
Ending the military drills meets a longstanding demand of North Korea and reflects the scepticism of Mr Trump, who questioned their price tag in comments after the summit with Mr Kim collapsed.
In Hanoi, North Korea had demanded that some sanctions be lifted in return for its moves to halt nuclear and missile tests, while the US sought more action on dismantling the North's enrichment facilities and weapons systems.
"North Korea has an incredible, brilliant economic future if they make a deal, but they don't have any economic future if they have nuclear weapons," Mr Trump said at a Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday.
He has strained US ties with South Korea, along with other US allies, over demands for greater payments for military assets.
The Combined Forces Command comprising US and South Korean forces said yesterday it was crucial for both armies to practise together to ensure stability on the Korean peninsula.
"It is important for professional armies to train and maintain a standard of readiness," General Park Han-ki, South Korea's chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and US General Robert Abrams said in a joint statement. "These exercises are crucial in sustaining and strengthening the alliance."
The plans to scale back the exercises could have some impact on readiness, US officials said, but it is not yet clear how much.
For now, it is unclear when the US and North Korea will meet again.
The US-South Korea move to revamp their military exercises could help pave the way for more talks down the road.
"North Korea could receive this as a reciprocal measure that the US decided to take because North Korea is no longer conducting missile and nuclear tests," said Professor Kim Hyun-wook at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy.
BLOOMBERG, REUTERS, WASHINGTON POST