As President Donald Trump sits down with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam this week, Pentagon officials will be tightly focused on any decisions impacting US military readiness in Asia.
While the White House and State Department take the diplomatic lead at the Hanoi summit in hope of reaching a nuclear agreement with North Korea, senior Defense Department officials are closely watching to see if there will be discussions, if not decisions, on how to proceed with two upcoming US-South Korean military exercises.
The joint drills with South Korea — some of which Trump suspended in an October 2018 concession to Kim — are one of two issues the Pentagon is scrutinizing amid broader concerns that the President may discuss the removal of US troops from the peninsula.
Pentagon officials are also hoping the summit will yield an agreement on further returns of US military remains from the Korean War, according to defense officials, an issue that is time sensitive because monsoon season could delay or postpone repatriation efforts.
The upcoming military exercises, commonly known as Foal Eagle and Key Resolve, are scheduled for this spring and everything is in place for them to go forward, Pentagon officials said. Defense Department officials refused to comment publicly but said on background that the exercises will proceed unless Trump specifically orders them canceled.
“The US-ROK alliance remains ironclad,” said Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Eastburn, when asked about the exercises. “Our forces maintain a high state of military readiness and vigilance in full support of a diplomatically led effort to bring peace, prosperity and stability to the Korean Peninsula.”
Earlier this month the US and South Korea reached a preliminary agreement on the cost of keeping nearly 30,000 troops in South Korea.
Under the revised Special Measures Agreement, South Korea would boost its financial contribution to nearly $1 billion, according to a State Department official and South Korean media. That’s an increase from the roughly $800 million South Korea had been paying per year during the previous five-year commitment.
In an early February interview with CBS, Trump said he has “no plans” to withdraw US troops from South Korea and claimed to have “never even discussed removing them,” but said “maybe someday” he would withdraw US forces from the country.
“I mean, who knows. But, you know, it’s very expensive to keep troops there,” Trump said, even though US military officials have said it is cheaper to house those troops in South Korea than in the US.
The US is also hoping it can reach an agreement with North Korea that would allow Defense Department teams into the country to search for the remains of US personnel missing since the Korean War, according to a US official tracking talks between the two sides. While the direct discussions on a potential agreement have been going on for some time, the upcoming second summit between Trump and Kim could pave the way for a final agreement.
“We are hoping the upcoming summit will be a beacon of light where we can move to the next phase,” the official said.
The US hopes to reach an agreement by March in order to conduct a search mission for remains before the summer monsoon season. With cold weather arriving later in the year it may not be possible to do a search in 2019 if an agreement isn’t reached in Vietman, the official said.
The Defense Department calculates there are approximately 5,300 US personnel remains in North Korea north of the Demilitarized Zone. That includes an estimated 200 sets of remains the North Koreans claim to have that they believe are US personnel. The calculation is made on the basis of where fighting occurred and reports of battlefield casualties on the ground or aircraft shot down, the official said.
The US has not had personnel in North Korea since 2005, when then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stopped the last effort to recover remains over security concerns as North Korea was pursuing its weapons programs.
Any current discussions about recovering troop remains will have to include an agreement on how security for US personnel will be handled, the official said. It’s not expected the North Koreans will agree to armed US troops on the ground, but the US will want assurances that North Korean troops will provide security at both base camps and field excavation sites.
In addition, the Defense Department will have a mandatory requirement that the US can take medical evacuation aircraft to North Korea for emergencies involving US personnel, the official said.