U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is headed to South Korea next week to discuss the next steps following a rare suspension of joint military exercises over the promise of North Korea's denuclearization.
The drills have been a core element of the U.S.-South Korea alliance forged in the 1950-53 Korean War, and their suspension has prompted a heated debate in South Korea over whether it could lead the communist regime to give up its nuclear weapons.
After a historic meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on June 12, U.S. President Donald Trump announced the decision to halt the "war games" that are "provocative" and "inappropriate," while negotiations to dismantle the nuclear program are under way.
A week later Seoul and Washington announced that planning for August's Ulchi Freedom Guardian (UFG) exercise would be halted.
"The suspension of exercises was a huge gift to North Korea and China," Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank, said in an email to Yonhap. "North Korea made no concession or even clarification of what denuclearization means or how it will happen."
Pyongyang has long viewed the exercises as an invasion rehearsal despite Seoul and Washington's assurances they are defensive in nature.
The hope is that by removing a major eyesore for Pyongyang, and what it claims is a threat to its regime, Kim will take steps to dismantle and remove his nuclear weapons, which he committed to do in a joint statement with Trump.
Many U.S. officials and experts believe it was only a matter of time before North Korea's nukes are able to strike the United States on intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Frank Aum, senior expert on North Korea at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said the suspension is a risk worth taking.
"I think the UFG suspension is a helpful concession that will outweigh the risks to military readiness and deterrence," he said in an email to Yonhap. "Suspending major military exercises is exactly what North Korea has been asking for, so for President Trump to make this concession this early in the process will get the negotiation process started on the right foot.
"This being said, it also puts a lot of pressure on North Korea to respond with a significant concession of its own," he added. "The U.S. and South Korea can always reinstate the exercises if North Korea doesn't take concrete steps."
The Trump administration has sought to allay concerns about the impact on readiness by emphasizing that the exercises will resume if North Korea doesn't live up to its commitments.
According to Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corp., North Korea could demonstrate its sincerity by giving up five nuclear weapons to begin with or disabling the uranium enrichment facility in Yongbyon.
"If Kim will not do that now, why should we believe that he will fully denuclearize eventually?" he asked in an email.
As for the suspension of exercises, Bennett suggested it could be a move in the right direction, but one without a guaranteed outcome.
"Stopping the UFG exercise will make North Korea anxious to have more dialogue with the United States, the North hoping to get even more U.S. concessions without having to do much more than talk," he said. "What is much less clear is whether stopping these exercises will contribute to denuclearization of North Korea."
The allies have halted drills only a handful of times.
In 1990, a previous version of the UFG was temporarily suspended due to U.S. participation in the Gulf War. Two years later a separate exercise was canceled amid dialogue with the North. (yonhap)