SEOUL — Despite a diplomatic thaw that includes the cancellation of joint military exercises scheduled for this month, U.S. troops in Korea remain poised to confront any military threats from North Korea, the commander of U.S. Forces in Korea, General Vincent Brooks, said Wednesday.
“I received no order to become unready,” Brooks told reporters at a briefing. “No one told me to stand down from readiness or the serious professional work we do as here in the Republic of Korea.”
This month’s canceled drills, called Ulchi Freedom Guardian, had been held annually and are among the largest military exercises in the world. Last year, Ulchi Freedom Guardian was held over 11 days and included 17,500 U.S. and 50,000 South Korean troops. The drills routinely anger Pyongyang, which sees them as a dress rehearsal for a full-scale invasion of the North.
At his historic June summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore, President Donald Trump surprised observers by announcing he would cancel the “war games,” calling them “provocative,” a term often used by Pyongyang.
The cancellation of the exercises has forced U.S. and South Korean forces to find “other ways to maintain readiness,” Brooks said.
“If we’re not going to train the same way, then we’ll train a different way — but we’re going to remain ready,” he said. “Perhaps we’ve been told for now to put our sword back into its sheath, but we have not been told to forget how to use it.”
There are currently about 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea. A U.S. military presence has remained since the Korean War, which ended in an armistice but not a peace treaty, leaving the sides technically still at war.
This year has seen a dramatic improvement of relations on the Korean peninsula, from North Korea’s participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in February to an inter-Korean summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim in April.
Kim’s summit with Trump in Singapore produced an agreement that called for a “lasting and stable peace regime” on the Korean Peninsula and a pledge from the North to work toward denuclearization.
The prospect of peace has raised questions about the future of American troops in South Korea, with Trump himself saying he favors removing American forces.
“I want to get our soldiers out,” Trump told reporters at the Singapore summit. “I want to bring our soldiers back home… but that’s not part of the equation right now. At some point, I hope it will be, but not right now.”
A defense policy bill for 2019, passed by Congress earlier this month and signed by Trump, makes it harder to reduce U.S. troop numbers in South Korea.
The $717 billion bill prevents the Pentagon from cutting the number of troops to less than 22,000 unless the defense secretary has certified that it’s in the “national security interest” and it has been done in consultation with regional allies.
“The presence of United States Forces on the Korean Peninsula should remain strong and enduring,” the bill said.
South Korea, whose own standing military consists of 620,000 troops, is making moves of its own to defuse tensions on the peninsula. On Tuesday, the South’s defense ministry announced that it would begin removing some guard posts along the border with North Korea on a trial basis.
A report by U.N. nuclear watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released Monday said that it did not find any indication that Pyongyang had stopped its nuclear activities.
“The continuation and further development of the DPRK’s nuclear program and related statements by the DPRK are a cause for grave concern,” the report said, using the official name for North Korea, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Brooks said “North Korea doesn’t have the sufficient degree of trust or confidence right now that it can take those steps [toward denuclearization] and still be safe.”
He called for continued international pressure on Pyongyang, saying that “earnest action” needed to be taken on denuclearization.
“There is still a need for continued pressure so that there is not a reason or even an ability for North Korea to back up,” he said. They’ve already taken important steps towards peace but these steps must be followed by more serious steps on denuclearization as well as trust-building.”