Factsheet: US-ROK Military Exercises

The first in a series on the North Korea nuclear crisis

Heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula have renewed proposals for a suspension of joint US-Republic of Korea (ROK) military exercises in exchange for a pause on North Korea’s nuclear and missile testing. This “freeze-for-freeze” concept has been proposed by North Korea, which has long viewed US-ROK war drills as a threat and precursors to invasion. Recently, China and Russia promoted the freeze as one diplomatic option to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table.

Pushback against the freeze-for-freeze proposal has been strong from the Trump administration, which claimed the military exercises are both a necessary deterrent and strictly routine. US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley called proposals for a freeze-for-freeze “insulting.” Likewise, South Korean Ambassador Cho Tae-yul said it would be inappropriate to link defensive exercises with provocations by North Korea.

However, history shows that suspending US-ROK military exercises can be an important factor in a successful diplomatic approach to the North. In 1992, the United States suspended Team Spirit, an annual field exercise involving hundreds of thousands of US-ROK troops. The Bush administration’s decision to suspend the 1992 exercises was a key part of a diplomatic strategy to encourage North Korea to cooperate on nuclear inspections. Team Spirit exercises were suspended again between 1994-1996, after which they were permanently cancelled. (Modified exercises resumed in 1997.)

The suspension of Team Spirit in 1994 was essential for preventing a military conflict with North Korea. Following North Korea’s announcement that it would produce weapons-grade plutonium, the United States was prepared to conduct surgical strikes on North Korea’s nuclear facilities. However, the risks of provoking a North Korean military response compelled the Clinton Administration to find a diplomatic solution.

The United States was able to avert a second Korean War by negotiating the 1994 Agreed Framework. This agreement froze North Korea’s plutonium production for eight years (1994 to 2002), during which time the North could have produced enough plutonium for more than 100 nuclear warheads. Suspending Team Spirit was a moderate, impactful adjustment to US-ROK military exercises that at no time undermined the alliance’s ability to mount an effective defense.

There are many options the Trump administration could consider to scale back or suspend military exercises as it explores negotiations with the North. The next US-ROK military exercises, called Foal Eagle and Key Resolve, will take place in March 2018 and involve more than 300,000 US-ROK troops. Foal Eagle is a large-scale Field Training Exercise, or a rehearsal of actual military maneuvers involving ground, air, and naval forces. It runs parallel to Key Resolve, a Command Post Exercise that does not typically involve large-scale field exercises. These exercises now include scenarios that assume the deployment of THAAD, a US missile defense system that China has stated “gravely harms the strategic security interests” of countries in the region.

Ulchi-Freedom Guardian is another Command Post Exercise that typically occurs in August. Although the exercises are largely computerized, they involve tens of thousands of US-ROK troops. According to one South Korean defense official, the latest exercise included “a nuclear war game” for the first time.

Absent a peace settlement to formally end the Korean War, the United States and South Korea have been conducting military exercises under the auspices of the 1953 Mutual Defense Treaty. US military officials assert that joint exercises are carried out in the Treaty’s spirit of collective defense, but changes to the US-ROK exercise program’s size, scope, and purpose are consistent with the agreement.

As has happened before, US-ROK military exercises can be adapted to meet diplomatic and security objectives. There are several options that may mitigate tensions and lay the groundwork for dialogue:

  • Suspend. One option is for the US and ROK to suspend major military exercises in South Korea for as long as North Korea refrains from staging nuclear or missile tests. To address concerns that a suspension would compromise combat readiness, modified exercises could be held outside of South Korea.
  • Scale down. A special advisor to South Korean President Moon Jae-in has proposed that South Korea “scale down deployment of American strategic weapons over the Korean peninsula” in exchange for a freeze on North Korea’s nuclear and missile activities.
  • Redesign. US-ROK exercises could be redesigned to omit provocative scenarios, such as those described in OPLAN 5015. This newly adopted wartime plan includes strikes against nuclear facilities and the top North Korean leadership. So-called “decapitation” raids undermine the administration’s stated policy against regime change and reinforce North Korea’s narrative of US hostility.
  • Reassure. Another option is to offer North Korea forms of reassurance during US-ROK exercises. This could include inviting outside observers, such as China and Russia, to monitor the drills.

As history has shown, the adjustment or suspension of military exercises can foster a more favorable environment for dialogue between the United States and North Korea. These options should be considered in light of their past successes, and future prospects, to deescalate crisis and promote dialogue on the Korean Peninsula.

Name Date Size Range Purpose Notes
Team Spirit 1976-1993 100,000 – 200,000 Field Suspended in 1992, 1994, 1995, and 1996.
Foal Eagle 2007-Present 50,000-300,000 Field Replaced Team Spirit. Resumes March 2018.
Key Resolve Command
Ulchi Freedom Guardian 1976-Present 70,000-75,000 Command Resumes August 2018.


Contact: Catherine Killough, ckillough@ploughshares.org

US-ROK military exercises can be adapted to meet diplomatic and security objectives.

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