02 April 2018 |Julian Ryall | DW
The joint US-South Korea Foal Eagle and Key Resolve military exercises began on Sunday with nearly 300,000 South Korean military personnel and 11,500 US troops involved in a series of field drills and computer-based tabletop exercises.
In previous years, the commencement of Foal Eagle would have provoked a barrage of propaganda from Pyongyang decrying the drills as a prelude to an invasion of the North and the forerunner of a nuclear exchange.
However, North Korea has suspended its rhetoric this year warning of a conflict engulfing the Korean Peninsula.
The US is also taking a different approach this year and isn’t deploying Rockwell B-1 Lancer bombers based in Guam and is scaling back the presence of the aircraft carrier strike groups formed around the USS Ronald Reagan and the USS Carl Vinson.
“The exercises are much smaller this year, only about half the size of last year, because the leaders of North and South Korea are planning to hold a summit before the end of the month and there has been good progress on the question of a detente in the last few months,” Ahn Yin Hay, a professor of international relations at Korea University in Seoul, told DW.
Exercises delayed by Olympics
Traditionally, the exercises would take place earlier in the year, but this year’s Winter Olympic Games in South Korea changed the schedule.
When North Korean leader Kim Jong Un hinted in his New Year’s address that he would be willing to send a North Korean team to the games in order to start building bridges with his long-time ideological rival, the South Korean government was able to convince the US to postpone the exercises until after the games had been concluded.
Many were skeptical of North Korea’s motives – and plenty remain so – but Kim has visited Xi Jinping in China for talks and is scheduled to meet Moon Jae In, his South Korean counterpart, before the end of April.
‘There is also a broad agreement in place for Kim to meet US President Donald Trump this spring, which would mark a dramatic diplomatic about-face for two leaders that just a few months ago were hurling insults at each other.
“North Korea wanted us [South Korea] to cancel the military exercises entirely as a prerequisite for face-to-face talks between the leaders, but neither Seoul nor Washington could accept that demand,” said Ahn.
“But the feeling is that this is compromise acceptable to both sides – and even Kim said that he understands that the South needs to carry out training drills when he met with Moon’s representatives.”