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South Korea, U.S. agree to scale down spring military drills

By Allen Cone
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South Korea, U.S. agree to scale down spring military drills
South Korean marines participate in amphibious operations on April 2, 2017, during the annual Foal Eagle exercise against a possible attack from North Korea, in Pohang, about 225 miles southeast of Seoul. Photo by Jeon Heon-Kyun/EPA

March 2 (UPI) -- South Korea and the United States announced Saturday night they have agreed to scale back their springtime military drills in an effort to improve diplomatic relations with North Korea.

The decision comes three days after U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un failed to reach an agreement on denuclearization by the regime.

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The exercises, which involve ground maneuvers, amphibious operations, combat air operations and counter special operations forces, had come under fire from North Korea and the Trump administration. North Korea has described the exercise as "a deliberate military provocation" and Trump last August posted on Twitter, "there is no reason at this time to be spending large amounts of money on joint U.S.-South Korea war games."

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The announcement came after phone call between acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and South Korean Minister of National Defense Jeong Kyeong-doo in which they "discussed the further coordination of measures to establish complete denuclearization and lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula, as well as steps to maintain the readiness of combined forces," according to a readout from the Defense Department of the phone call.

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In reviewing the results of the summit, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea and the Republic of Korea joint chiefs of staff agreed on the exercises' change.

"Following close coordination, both sides decided to conclude the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle series of exercises," a readout from the Defense Department of the phone call said. "The Minister and Secretary reaffirmed their commitment to ensuring the continued combined defense of U.S.-ROK [Republic of Korea] combined forces to meet any security challenge, and agreed to maintain firm military readiness through newly designed Command Post exercises and revised field training programs."

The Foal Eagle and Key Resolve were scheduled for this spring. Instead the joint exercises will be done on a small unit level or even include virtual training similar to the 2018 scaled-back exercises, CNN reported.

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Defense officials have said they believe necessary training needs can be conducted this way.

"The minister and secretary made clear that the alliance decision to adapt our training program reflected our desire to reduce tension and support our diplomatic efforts to achieve complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a final, fully verified manner," said the readout.

Shanahan and Jeong noted the close relationships between their nations.

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"The minister and secretary share the understanding that the two countries' communication is more robust than ever in the midst of changes in the security environment of the Korean Peninsula," according to the readout. "Both agreed to continue strengthening coordination and cooperation by meeting one another in person in the near future to further deepen the ROK-U.S. Alliance and ensure peace and security on the Korean Peninsula."

After the June summit between Trump and Kim, the United States suspended several larger military exercises as part of an effort to ease tensions. James Mattis, defense secretary at the time, told reporters last November that the 2019 version of the Foal Eagle exercise was being "reorganized a bit" to keep from "being harmful to diplomacy."

Earlier this week, the United States refused to end sanctions against North Korea in return for dismantlement of its main nuclear facility. Foreign Minister Ri Yong-hoKorea said Friday his nation was seeking partial relief of sanctions from the United States, not complete relief as stated by Trump.

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