South Korean troops carry out drills on the Seoul-controlled rocky islands, known as Dokdo in Korea and Takeshima in Japan, on October 25, 2013. Photo: AFP/South Korean Navy

Following Donald Trump’s surprise declaration after his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore last week, Seoul and Washington formally announced on Tuesday that they are halting summer military drills.

Still, not all was quiet around the Korean peninsula. While the two allies cancelled exercises aimed at deterring North Korea, South Korea practiced a robust response to counter a frankly unlikely Japanese invasion of its easternmost territory – delivering a further blow to a player that has been left out of ongoing diplomatic developments in the region.

Political decision may be bad military move

“South Korea and the United States have agreed to suspend all planning activities regarding the Freedom Guardian military drill scheduled for August,” South Korea’s Military of National Defense said in a press statement.

The Pentagon also issued a statement.

Although not as big as the annual spring drills, 17,500 American and more than 50,000 South Korean troops took part in the summer exercises last year. They largely comprise command post simulations, rather than “boots on the ground,” but are particularly irksome to North Korea – which is unable to monitor the exercises which take place in locked-down facilities – and which may lack the kind of sophisticated software to carry out similar drills itself.

Trump’s unexpected decision worried some in defense and military circles, particularly given the timing.

“I think it was a bad military move as US forces in Korea are changing their commanders right now,” said Steve Tharp, a Seoul-based retired US Army colonel. “These exercises are important, as the new commander can see how his staff works.”

While the summer drills are not as big as the spring drills, Tharp stated that they are arguably more important, as they come at a time of year when fresh troops are rotating into the peninsula. “This is when incoming troops learn what they are doing,” he said.

While he conceded that a one-time cancellation is not particularly deleterious, if they are halted indefinitely, capabilities will be eroded, he said.

No complaints in Seoul

Although it seems clear that Seoul was not informed in advance of Trump’s Singapore decision, there were never likely to be any complaints from the left-leaning Moon Jae-in administration about halting drills.

Engagement with North Korea is a central Moon policy priority, and the annual drills, which Pyongyang considers provocative, have always been an obstacle to improved relations. Moreover, earlier this year, Moon had asked for spring military drills to be pushed back, to allow the diplomatic maneuvers taking place on the sidelines of the Winter Olympics maximum time and space to bear fruit – as they did.

More worrying for South Korea in the mid- to long-term is Trump’s constant references to the expense of the 28,500 troops who make up US Forces Korea, or USFK.

Moon and his Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha have stated that USFK is not a matter for Pyongyang and Seoul to discuss, but a bilateral issue between Seoul and Washington. But ironically, the main pressure for a write-down is coming not from Pyongyang on strategic grounds, but from Washington on expense grounds.

Indeed, in recent summit talks, North Korea does not appear to have demanded a withdrawal of US troops – unless that is an issue to be addressed in the “total denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” which could encompass US troops and assets in the region.

Still, with the North Korean military threat still very real, the president’s statements on USFK may simply be a Trumpian negotiating tactic. “The president can talk like that and he may just be positioning to get more money out of the South Koreans to pay for the stationing of soldiers here,” he said.

A double whammy for Japan

While cancelling the summer drills may not irk South Korea, Japan is unlikely to be impressed.

Japan has consistently called for a hardline stance against North Korea, and while it does not take part in any drills on the peninsula, it supports them politically. However, with both Moon and Trump actively communicating with Kim, Japan’s Shinzo Abe, despite his attempts to court Trump, has been left on the sidelines.

In another blow to Japan, as the South Korea-US drills were being halted, South Korea was flexing its military muscle in another direction: In the Sea of Japan, which Korea calls the East Sea.

South Korea on Tuesday wrapped up two-day drills aimed at defending its easternmost islets of Dokdo against unspecified “external forces.” The drills deployed six warships, F-15K jet fighters, Blackhawk helicopters, marines and coast guard units.

The imaginary “external forces” are clear to anyone who follows East Asia politics.

The ownership of the islets, which are occupied by a detachment of armed South Korean police, is disputed: Japan calls them Takeshima and insists they are Japanese. Koreans insist, even more fiercely – in frequent demonstrations outside the Japanese embassy – that they are Korean and that Japan’s claims are groundless.

Tokyo, predictably, called the drills, which usually take place twice a year, “extremely regrettable.”

While Japan and South Korea share similar democratic polities and economic structures, and their peoples share similar lifestyles and aspirations, many South Koreans are deeply suspicious of Japan due to its colonization of Korea between 1910 and 1945. Koreans are taught that this was the darkest period of their history, and many are adamant that Japan has never adequately apologized. Even when compensation and apologies are delivered, they are frequently dismissed as “insincere.”

And suspicion of Japan is not limited to the man on the street. Against the backdrop of improving inter-Korean relations and a possibly drawdown of the USFK, experts from Seoul’s Sejong’s Institute suggested, in a press conference with foreign reporters, that in the future, the Koreas might have to strike a military balance between China on the one hand and Japan on the other.

While Washington has made no secret of the fact that it would like to see closer relations between the two democracies as a regional counter-balance to China and North Korea, there is zero appetite for any such move in Seoul.

Even Yoo Seung-min, then-head of the conservative Bareunmirae party, admitted, in a meeting with reporters prior to last week’s local elections, that any kind of formal alliance with Japan is politically impossible.

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