No Plans to Cancel More Military Exercises with South Korea: Mattis

South Korean and U.S. soldiers take part in a March 2017 landing exercise. If a conventional war broke out with North Korea, casualties in the first days of fighting could reach 300,000.(AFP photo/Ed Jones)
South Korean and U.S. soldiers take part in a March 2017 landing exercise. If a conventional war broke out with North Korea, casualties in the first days of fighting could reach 300,000.(AFP photo/Ed Jones)

The Defense Department doesn't plan to cancel any more upcoming exercises with South Korea, even as diplomatic efforts between North Korea and the Trump administration appear to have soured in recent weeks, the secretary of defense said today.

On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the Pentagon is coordinating with officials at the State Department to monitor how future negotiations with North Korea transpire.

"As you know, we took the step to suspend several of the largest exercises as a good-faith measure coming out of the Singapore summit," Mattis told reporters on Tuesday.

The press briefing marked the first public appearance for Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford since the Pentagon launched Tomahawk missile strikes on Syria in April.

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"We have no plans at this time to suspend any more exercises," Mattis said. "We will work very closely with [Secretary of State Mike Pompeo] and what he needs done, we will certainly do to reinforce his effort. But at this time, there is no discussion about further suspensions."

Mattis reiterated what the Defense Department had announced in June following the Singapore Summit: the U.S. had suspended larger exercises -- what President Donald Trump at the time had characterized as 'war games' -- but smaller training efforts with South Korean counterparts would remain on the calendar.

"There are ongoing exercises all the time on the [Korean] peninsula," Mattis said.

Mattis said the smaller exercises have not been publicized in order to avoid misinterpretation by North Korea, which may view them as a "break in faith" following the June negotiations.

The Pentagon had indefinitely suspended larger-scale summer exercises with South Korea, most notably Ulchi Freedom Guardian, at the Trump administration's request following the president's meeting with North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore.

"To support implementing the outcomes of the Singapore Summit, and in coordination with our Republic of Korea ally, Secretary Mattis has indefinitely suspended select exercises," officials announced at the time.

"This includes suspending Freedom Guardian along with two Korean Marine Exchange Program training exercises scheduled to occur in the next three months," DoD said in a statement. "In support of upcoming diplomatic negotiations led by Secretary Pompeo, additional decisions will depend upon the DPRK continuing to have productive negotiations in good faith."

In his comments after the summit, Trump called the exercises "too expensive" and also "provocative" to the North Koreans, who for decades have also charged that the exercises were practice for an invasion.

The announcement had come months after the U.S. and South Korean forces earlier in the year postponed two Peninsula-wide exercises, Foal Eagle and Key Resolve, in a pledge to downsize military training until the Winter Olympics in South Korea had concluded.

The month-long exercises then kicked off in April and were expected to include 12,000 U.S. troops and nearly 300,000 South Korean forces. Weeks before the games, the U.S. had held the wing-level exercise Beverly Herd -- which officials at the time characterized as "non-major" -- with counterparts at Osan Air Base.

"We're making no change to the exercise program at this time," Mattis said on Tuesday. "They've never been turned off."

Meanwhile, Trump days ago canceled a pre-planned meeting between Pompeo and officials in Pyongyang that was to take place later this week. Just days ahead of the planned trip, Pompeo had named Steve Biegun to be the administration's envoy for North Korea.

Trump had cited a lack in "sufficient progress" on North Korea's end as the reason for canceling the visit.

Mattis said the decision regarding whether massive exercises such as Freedom Guardian take place next year is still in review with the State Department.

"We are going to see how the negotiations go and then we'll calculate ... how we go forward. I don't have a crystal ball right now," he said. "Let's see how the negotiations go. Let the diplomats go forward ... and we'll deal with supporting [them]."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.

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