WASHINGTON — U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision last month to cancel military exercises with South Korea led to a “slight degradation” in American readiness, according to the president’s nominee to lead U.S. Forces Korea.
But Army Gen. Robert Abrams, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, defended the president’s decision as a calculated diplomatic concession to North Korea that will not lead to any long-term damage to U.S. troops’ training or the relationship with South Korean leaders.
“The suspension of military exercises … was a prudent risk if we’re willing to make the effort to change the relationship with [Pyongyang],” said Abrams, who heads Army Forces Command. “I think there is certainly degradation to the readiness of the force. That’s a key exercise to maintain continuity and to continue to practice our interoperability, and so there was a slight degradation.”
In June, after Trump met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore, the United States said it would suspend “select” exercises with South Korea, including the large-scale Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercises slated for August. Trump described the exercises as “war games” and highly “provocative.”
The springtime Key Resolve/Foal Eagle drills with South Korea are currently being planned, though the decision to resume them will be “a decision by our alliance leaders,” Abrams said. He expressed confidence in U.S. Forces Korea’s mitigation plan, which includes “smaller-level-of-staff exercises that would not be of the same scale, scope and volume in the information domain.”
The exercises were a theme among Democrats, and Abrams at times said he would circle back with lawmakers, if confirmed. It would be “hard to judge” how many such large-scale military exercises can be skipped, he said at one point, adding he would “apply that judgement based on what I assess on the ground.”
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, pressed Abrams to give his “personal opinion” whether the removal of U.S. troops from South Korea, as Trump has discussed, would be “disastrous” or “really bad.” Sullivan said the administration had a “blind spot” and insisted lawmakers are in bipartisan agreement that they will not authorize such a move.
“If Kim Jong Un offers to remove illegally obtained ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons for lawfully deployed U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula, do you think that would be a smart decision, and tactically and strategically that would be good for our posture not just on the Korean Peninsula but in the region?”
“Tactically, without any mention of any change in his conventional capability, there would be a significant amount of risk,” Abrams said, before acknowledging amid Sullivan’s questions, that Russia and China would be “strongly encouraged” by such a scenario.
Replied Sullivan: “We think it would be strategically disastrous and the fact the administration seems to be toying with it is very troubling. And Congress doesn’t support it.”
Abrams would replace Army Gen. Vincent Brooks at the helm of some 28,500 American troops based in South Korea at a crucial time. Seoul and Washington are engaged in high-wire diplomatic efforts to persuade the North to give up its nuclear weapons.
On Tuesday, Trump spoke at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, where he thanked Kim for his cooperation in diplomatic talks but said sanctions would remain in effect until total denuclearization occurs.
Asked earlier to assess the threat from Pyongyang, Abrams said it remains a significant threat and described the current situation as “a temporary pause and detente,” adding that military posture has not changed as the diplomatic approach takes place.
It had been 300 days since Pyongyang’s last provocation and there has been military-to-military communications at the senior officer level between North Korea and the United Nations for the first time in 11 years, he said.
Reacting to South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s defense reform efforts, Abrams acknowledged there would be a reduction in capability but touted Seoul’s plans to increase defense spending by 8.7 percent, to 2.7 percent of its gross domestic product, the highest of any treaty ally of the U.S.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.