March 12, 2019

Folding on Foal Eagle With South Korea

Trump’s decision to cut war exercises with South Korea has significant implications.

The U.S.-North Korean Summit ended abruptly without resolving the question of North Korean nuclear ambitions. In its wake, pundits have been pontificating about who got the best end of the “no deal” deal. While no changes to North Korean posture or intentions were mentioned, President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. and South Korea would cancel Exercise Foal Eagle, a large scale, multi-lateral exercise conducted for over two decades at bases and training areas across Korea. The president’s stated reason for canceling the exercise — “to save hundreds of millions of dollars for the U.S.” — is typical Trump: a gross exaggeration intended to burnish his self-bestowed credentials as a deal maker and fiscal conservative and to justify a decision he knows many will question.

The Korean Peninsula is one of the most dynamic and dangerous operating environments on earth. It’s a mature theater: The U.S.-led United Nations Command has either been conducting or planning operations continuously since 1950, and a robust exercise program has been in place for decades. While some might argue that these characteristics make Foal Eagle a cheap “chip” to trade for better relations with North Korea, they are only part of the equation.

One of the main reasons the theater has received so much attention (and money) for so long is because it’s hard to think of a place on earth where the combination of high tensions and proximity form a more volatile mix. North Korea has enough short-range missiles and conventional artillery within range of Seoul to inflict unthinkable casualties in the first few hours of an attack. Most believe those volleys would be accompanied by extensive sabotage and acts of terror carried out by North Korean sleeper agents and special operations teams. If the North Koreans launch an attack, those tasked with stopping it will have minutes to make critical decisions; there simply won’t be time to make introductions and check playbooks.

U.S. personnel policy also complicates matters. The majority of servicemen and women are on one-year “unaccompanied” orders — they leave their family at their last stateside duty station for the year they’re in Korea — which does actually save “hundreds of millions of dollars” by minimizing the infrastructure required (e.g., family housing, schools, etc.) as well as the cost of shipping household goods across the Pacific. But it also means that the relationships formed and lessons learned at last year’s exercises have no more than a 12-month shelf life.

Foal Eagle alone won’t make or break the good guys’ war-fighting capability, but canceling it is neither a purely symbolic move nor one that’s going have a meaningful financial impact. In the long run, President Trump’s statements couching the U.S.-South Korea relationship in primarily financial terms and absolving North Korean leader Kim Jong-un of any responsibility in the death of University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier continue a troubling trend of bashing our allies and providing platforms that boost the credibility of opponents. There’s a lot of “The Art of the Deal” in Trump’s mix, but at some point, the leader of the free world has to call a spade a spade.

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