A top US commander in South Korea on Wednesday dismissed concerns that the decision to suspend an upcoming large-scale joint exercise would lead to the end of training exercises that the allies’ forces have conducted regularly.
During his speech at the Ministry of National Defense, USFK Commander Gen. Vincent Brooks said halting the scheduled Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise would serve to build trust with North Korea by reducing “unnecessary irritation.”
The general stressed that such moves would send a strong signal that the allies support a diplomatic approach toward North Korea, helping its leader Kim Jong-un “save face” when making a strategic shift from last year’s confrontation.
“I will eliminate the doubt and concerns about all military training going away. I don’t have any such instruction coming my way,” Brooks said during his keynote speech at the Korea-US alliance forum with the Korean-American Club in Seoul.
“So I don’t anticipate that this is an end of all exercises and training as we know it, but rather these visible exercises that are right up front that may cause unnecessary irritation at a time when the need for trust building is so important”
His remark came amid speculation in Seoul and Washington that the allies’ regular training drills -- scheduled to follow the Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise -- could be canceled as a trust-building measure with North Korea.
Following the suspension of the UFG slated for August, the South Korean and US militaries announced last week that they would delay a series of joint marine exercises scheduled to take place within the next three months.
The general, however, stressed that the allies have numerous ways to preserve robust readiness against North Korea, saying there would be “flexibility” over the scope, timing and scale of the joint exercise.
“If we don‘t have the larger exercises, there are a number of ways to do that. We have leader development training, smaller-scale exercises, we even have the ability to think about using other levels.”
“This is not touching on-off switches necessarily but rather using different adjustable mechanisms. Maybe it is going to be smaller than it has been in the past to lower the tensions or shorter, or we could leave a certain part of it out.”
Among those options aimed to adjust the exercise, the allies can consider “turning down the volume” of the military drills, Brooks said, indicating they can pursue “quite exercise,” instead of being oriented on “deterrence and intimidation” against North Korea.
While there are some indications of change and positive intent on North Korea’s denuclearization efforts, Brook said the allies should maintain pressure campaign as the country’s physical military capability remain intact.
Despite the challenges and skepticism over North Korea’s denuclearization pledge, the general sounded cautious optimism toward Pyongyang’s diplomatic overtures.
“What has happened in the past is not necessarily a prologue to what will happen in the future… That is the opportunity to overcome doubt, overcome fears and take a reasonable amount of risk to go in a new direction that has not been walked before.”
“If things go poorly, trust me, we’re ready. And we will stay ready. And I believe Kim Jong-un knows that. And that is not the option we doesn’t want to choose and he doesn’t want us to choose either.”
When asked about the prospect of US military presence in South Korea, Brooks dismissed possibilities that the USFK would be withdrawn immediately because the issue is not the prime interest of the two countries’ political leaders.
“We shouldn’t have any worry or doubt about the departure of US forces. President Trump said he is not interested in doing that right now. President Moon said he is not interested in doing that right now.”
The commander also highlighted that it was not in the interests of the two countries’ legislative branches, which voiced concern over Trump’s criticism of maintaining a large military presence overseas, including South Korea.
When asked whether the US is committed to defending South Korea against North Korea’s aggression, Brooks said that the US is willing to shed blood, but South Korea should recognize its cost.
“There should be no doubt that the US is willing if necessary to shed blood. We have it happening even today in the world. But that should also be very clear that the US knows the cost of shedding blood. It is not just a human toll, it is a cost on society, a cost on infrastructure.”
Stressing that the South Korea-US alliance will last “indefinitely,” the USKF commander called for the audience to “live the alliance” -- instead of worrying about the fate of the 65-year-old alliance that has gone through turbulent times.
“I prefer to live every day I have because there is no guarantee how it is going to last, not my life not my alliance. So right now, how about let’s just live the alliance. That is what we should be doing every single day,” he said.