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HANOI, Vietnam – Even as he announced the failure of nuclear negotiations with North Korea, President Donald Trump complained that annual military drills with South Korea were "very, very expensive" and said the South must pay more for them.
Trump's comments Thursday raised the question of whether the allies can hold springtime drills this year at the same level as in the past and maintain their military readiness if tensions with North Korea flare again following the collapsed talks.
The alliance, forged in blood during the 1950-53 Korean War, has been at risk since Trump threatened earlier to pull out the 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea if Seoul doesn't increase its financial support for them. After his first summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore last June, he baffled many in South Korea by unilaterally announcing the suspension of major summertime military drills, calling them "very provocative" and "tremendously expensive."
"I want to bring our soldiers (in South Korea) back home," Trump added.
Trump's second summit with Kim in Hanoi ended early with no agreement on Thursday because of what Trump described as a dispute over the lifting of U.S.-led sanctions on North Korea. When asked by a reporter whether he would go ahead with other major drills with South Korea, Trump complained about how costly they were.
"And I'm not saying it's not necessary because on some levels it is, but on other levels it's not. But it's a very, very expensive thing and we do have to think about that, too," Trump said. "And frankly, I was sort of the opinion that South Korea should help us with that. You know, we're protecting South Korea. I think they should help us with that."
Around this time of the year, U.S. and South Korean troops normally launch springtime drills that involve both massive field exercises and computer-simulated war games. Last year's drills were delayed for weeks to encourage North Korea's participation in the South Korean Winter Olympics, which paved the way for U.S.-North Korea nuclear diplomacy.
Details of this year's exercises haven't been announced, with officials from both countries closely watching the outcome of the Hanoi summit. Seoul's Defense Ministry said earlier Thursday that the starting date for the drills hasn't been decided.
The allies have been holding smaller training exercises, but experts say a prolonged halt in comprehensive exercises would eventually weaken their military readiness, especially since many U.S. troops rotate out of South Korea after less than a year of service. A key objective of joint drills is the training of both commanders and troops from both countries to be ready for any crisis.
During past drills, the U.S. often flew nuclear-capable bombers close to the border with North Korea and deployed aircraft carriers near the Korean Peninsula in a show of force, while North Korea conducted high-profile weapons tests in response.
"We fly these massive bombers in from Guam, and when I first started a certain general said, 'oh, yes sir, we fly them in from Guam, it's right next door.' Right next door is seven hours away and then they come and drop millions of dollars of bombs and then they go back," Trump said Thursday. "We spend hundreds of millions of dollars on those exercises, and I hated to see it. I thought it was unfair."
Analyst Kim Dae-young at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy said U.S. nuclear-capable bombers occasionally dropped conventional bombs at firing ranges in South Korea during past exercises. He called Trump's description of "millions of dollars" of spending on those bombing exercises a "clear exaggeration."
He said the U.S. would likely send less troops and equipment to upcoming drills, ultimately weakening the joint operational capability. "Listening to what Trump said today, I felt he's saying he will send strategic assets if South Korea pays for their deployment," he said.
Worries about a U.S. troop drawdown flared in South Korea earlier this year when Trump pushed Seoul to drastically increase its financial contribution for the U.S. military deployment. The concerns died down after Trump said he had no immediate plans to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea and Seoul eventually agreed to pay more.
But similar security jitters could erupt again because the allies need to begin negotiating next year's troop deployment, and it is highly likely that Trump will demand that South Korea increase its share again.
North Korea has long pushed for the suspension of joint military drills and a U.S. troop pullout.
Since U.S. "carpet bombing" during the Korean War destroyed much of its infrastructure, North Korea has feared U.S. attacks. It calls its nuclear weapons a "powerful treasured sword" that can foil U.S. attempts to invade.
During negotiations with the U.S., North Korea has pushed for a joint declaration of the end of the Korean War as a security guarantee. An armistice halted fighting in the war and no peace treaty was ever signed. The declaration could provide North Korea with a firmer basis for stepping up its call for a U.S. troop withdrawal.
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