Acting Defense Chief Sees No Need to Restart Big Military Exercises With South Korea

SEOUL, South Korea — Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said on Sunday that he did not see a need to restore the large-scale joint military exercises that the United States and South Korea suspended over the past year as a concession to North Korea.

American and South Korean troops have continued low-key, smaller-scale exercises during the suspension, but the two countries are expected to keep holding off on the big, publicly advertised war games that can include thousands of ground, naval, air and Special Operations troops.

North Korea has long viewed the high-profile exercises as provocative, and President Trump announced last year that he was suspending them as he pursued nuclear negotiations with the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un.

Mr. Shanahan said he wanted to discuss with American and South Korean military commanders how to make sure that troops from the two countries remained in a state of readiness — military parlance for being able to fight should hostilities begin.

“I do want to talk about our readiness, and ensure the things that we need to do to be prepared if diplomacy fails,” Mr. Shanahan told reporters aboard his plane to Seoul, the South Korean capital. But, he added, “I’m confident that we have the readiness that we’re required to have.”

The decision to continue offering the concession to North Korea came despite missile tests that Pyongyang conducted last month, and amid unconfirmed reports that North Korea has executed its special envoy to the United States on spying charges. A South Korean news daily also reported that Mr. Kim had engineered a sweeping purge of the country’s top nuclear negotiators after the breakdown in Hanoi, Vietnam, of his second summit meeting with Mr. Trump.

Still, after the failed meeting, which ended without an agreement on how, or whether, to shut down the North’s nuclear weapons program, Defense Department officials said the Pentagon would once again suspend two large-scale joint military exercises that were scheduled for this spring, to maintain the truce that Mr. Trump had struck with Mr. Kim.

But American military officials have long cautioned that suspending exercises can hamper readiness, so Mr. Shanahan is walking a tightrope as he tries to placate his boss, who has taken a more benign approach toward Mr. Kim in the past year, while reassuring commanders that they will have the tools they need to keep troops prepared.

In June last year, without consulting the Pentagon, the president suspended major military exercises with South Korea after meeting Mr. Kim for the first time, in Singapore. Two months later, Mr. Trump rebuked Jim Mattis, then the defense secretary, for opening the door to resuming the exercises.

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