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ROK-U.S. Exercises and Denuclearizing North Korea: Diplomacy or Readiness?
Published April 23, 2020
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In the press conference that followed the Singapore summit in June 2018, President Trump announced that he would stop the “war games” since they were costly and provocative. Subsequent large-scale ROK-U.S. combined exercises were suspended or down-sized, but military training in Korea continued. Critics responded that these actions would damage military readiness and do little to encourage Pyongyang to denuclearize. Proponents of the change responded that this was a worthwhile gesture to reduce North Korean security concerns and would help create space for the diplomatic process to advance. This paper examines two fundamental questions. What impact did the altered exercise schedule have on military readiness in Korea? Was the associated risk worth the possible gain to support diplomacy? Though significant debate remains, the short-term risk to readiness was acceptable as both militaries continued to train, tension levels had decreased in 2018, and there was little likelihood that North Korea would challenge the alliance. The more controversial element was the role of military exercises as a bargaining tool and whether the changes were essential to support diplomacy or instead were a mistake that lessened the pressure on North Korea. Military readiness has a shelf-life, but it can be maintained in multiple ways and must be balanced against the overall security environment and the potential for diplomacy.

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