WASHINGTON — At a potentially pivotal moment of diplomacy with North Korea, the Pentagon said Monday that annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises that had been postponed for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics will begin April 1.
In a brief statement, the Pentagon said Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and his South Korean counterpart, Song Young-moo, agreed to go forward with the maneuvers, known as Foal Eagle and Key Resolve, “at a scale similar to” that of previous years.
North Korea has been notified of the schedule “as well as the defensive nature” of the exercises, the Pentagon said.
The timing and size of the annual maneuvers are especially sensitive this year because of heightened tension over the North’s accelerated work last year on a nuclear-armed missile potentially capable of reaching the United States ― followed, unexpectedly, by prospects for a diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis.
North Korea typically objects to U.S.-South Korean military exercises, calling them dress rehearsals for an invasion. Washington and Seoul insist they are defensive and are needed to keep allied forces combat-ready.
After recent high-level talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, South Korean officials said Kim indicated his acceptance of the maneuvers. Kim also offered to meet personally with President Donald Trump to discuss giving up his nuclear weapons on unspecified terms, and Trump quickly agreed. The time and place of the unprecedented talks have not been set, but the White House indicated the summit would happen by May.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in is scheduled to set the stage for that summit by meeting with Kim in April in the Demilitarized Zone, which separates the two Koreas.
It had been widely expected that the U.S.-South Korean military exercises would go ahead, even with the new prospects for diplomacy. Some have speculated that the maneuvers would be scaled back, but the Pentagon said they would be conducted at “the same scale, scope and duration” as in previous years.
The larger of the two exercises, Foal Eagle, is a field training exercise with about 11,500 U.S. troops and about 290,000 South Korean troops, according to a Pentagon spokesman, Marine Lt. Col. Christopher Logan. The other, known as Key Resolve, will involve about 12,200 U.S. troops and about 10,000 from South Korea.
“To avoid compromising exercise objectives, specifics regarding the exercise scenarios will not be discussed,” Logan said, adding that the purpose is to “enhance” the ability of the U.S.-South Korean alliance to defend South Korean territory.
The U.S. has about 28,500 troops permanently stationed in South Korea and is obligated by treaty to defend the South in the event it is attacked by the North. The two Koreas are still technically at war because their 1950-53 war ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty.