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WSJ – U.S.-South Korea Military Exercises Stay Digital, as North Korean Threat Grows

President Trump’s directive two years ago to scale back field drills means most rank-and-file soldiers haven’t experienced combined maneuvers

By Andrew Jeong

SEOUL – The U.S. and South Korea plan to start their third major combined military exercise using computer simulations as early as next week, two years after President Trump ordered field drills be scaled back.
The move to digital drills means that most rank-and-file soldiers from the U.S. and South Korea haven’t physically conducted a combined exercise for a violent confrontation with the Kim Jong Un regime, which has continued to advance its weapons arsenal. Seoul’s military largely consists of draftees serving 18-month stints, while most American troops typically spend just a year based in South Korea.
The field drills were last conducted in early 2018 and involved tens of thousands of military personnel. They featured beach-storming marines and rumbling tanks. Now, the exercises unfold indoors in front of computer monitors. The digital drills require the involvement of just several thousand people, according to defense officials.
“There’s definitely a loss to preparedness,” said Oh Yeon-goon, a retired South Korean air force general. The yearly drills keep the combined U.S.-South Korean forces synchronized and accustomed to serving under the same chain of command, Mr. Oh said.
General Robert Abrams, the commander of U.S. forces in Korea, said last month at a public event that his troops had “leveraged modified training events” to maintain readiness despite the reduction in exercises. The two allies have been conducting smaller-scale training, including an event involving special forces from both countries late last year.
After meeting Mr. Kim for the first time at a summit in Singapore in 2018, Mr. Trump, to the surprise of some of his own defense officials, abruptly said U.S.-South Korean military drills would be scaled back or suspended. The president has called the exercises “ridiculous and expensive.” Pyongyang has often lashed out against the combined training, viewing it even now as part of a U.S. “hostile” policy against the regime.
The lost training means the two countries will have less understanding of each other’s capabilities and weapons systems, eroding the mutual trust that is essential to fighting shoulder-to-shoulder should a war erupt, according to recently retired South Korean military officials.
Van Jackson, who served as a defense policy adviser in the Obama administration, said the U.S. has yet to receive any benefit from North Korea for suspending the field drills beyond Mr. Trump’s friendship with Mr. Kim.
“There are smart strategic reasons for suspending exercises if it buys you goodwill that you then turn into negotiating momentum,” Mr. Jackson said. “But that’s not what’s been happening in Korea.”
Over the past two years, the North has become a bigger threat to the U.S. and South Korea, military analysts say. Pyongyang has resumed its cycle of weapons testing and provocations as nuclear talks with Washington have stalled.
The North began its own summer military exercise in July, firing antiship missiles designed to hit U.S. and allied warships, South Korea’s military said. Last year, it showcased missiles resembling Russia’s Iskander missiles, that can hit U.S. bases in Korea, better evade existing American and South Korean missile defense systems, and carry nuclear warheads. The Kim regime has also resumed testing older ballistic missiles.
Mr. Kim, at an anniversary speech last week celebrating the end of the Korean War, declared that the nation’s nuclear program had ensured the “security and future of our state will be guaranteed forever.”
Gen. Abrams last month said this increased diversity and evolution of North Korea’s missile capabilities meant U.S. and South Korean forces needed to beef up their missile defenses.
In the past, the computerized simulations presented scenarios, like a surprise North Korean military attack against South Korea, or an internal Kim regime crisis that may warrant an allied intervention, recently retired South Korean military officials say.
In the upcoming drills, participants will be wearing masks and enforcing social distancing, as precautions against the virus, defense officials said. A similar computer exercise scheduled in the springtime this year was indefinitely postponed as coronavirus cases surged in South Korea. Seoul has now flattened the virus curve, with daily infections remaining in the double digits, in a country of 51 million.
A recent U.S. military think-tank analysis questioned America’s military preparedness in the Asia Pacific. U.S. forces are too concentrated in Japan and South Korea and need to be boosted in South and Southeast Asia, according to a July report from the Strategy Studies Institute, which is affiliated with the U.S. Army.
The current U.S. setup could be sufficient for a large-scale clash with North Korea, though it is “grossly inadequate for either hypercompetition or armed hostilities” with China, according to the report.
The Kim regime’s increased firepower comes as military cost-sharing talks between the U.S. and South Korea have strained relations. Seoul and Washington’s cost-sharing pact expired Dec. 31 and the two have yet to agree on how to divvy up the costs for stationing 28,500 U.S. military personnel in South Korea-home to America’s largest overseas military base. The U.S., at an earlier point in talks, had requested South Korea boost its payments fivefold to $5 billion annually.
The military-cost discussions are being closely watched by Tokyo, whose own arrangement with Washington expires next year. In a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono bristled at the notion the country’s payment could balloon in size.
“If we pay more, then the U.S. forces in Japan will become something like mercenaries, and I don’t think anyone wants to do this,” Mr. Kono said. Japan is home to 54,000 U.S. military personnel.
-Alastair Gale in Tokyo contributed to this article.
Write to Andrew Jeong at andrew.jeong@wsj.co

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