On April 1st , 2018, joint exercises of the armed forces of the Republic of Korea and the United States were launched on the Korean peninsula. Foal Eagle field exercises, combined with the Key Resolve command-staff games and computer simulations are considered one of the largest in the world. This year, the Foal Eagle drills include 11.5 thousand American and 290 thousand South Korean troops.
Annual large-scale military exercizes have long been an integral part of the military-political cycle on the Korean peninsula and almost always caused a Spring «freak out»: North Korea considers them a rehearsal before the invasion and bursts into some combative rhetoric, threatening to respond with a crushing blow. During the last year's US-South Korean exercises the events developed properly in this scenario. Many even were seriously afraid that only spark is enough to drive the situation out of control. However, this time there are reasons to believe that everything will be much calmer. Seoul and Washington have taken a series of measures to make the current exercises look less provocative.
First, the exercises schedule was changed. They were moved to April to coincide not with the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games. Moreover, the duration of the Foal Eagle exercises was halved - up to one month instead of two months last year. Second, this time the exercises will not involve the so-called "strategic assets" – nuclear aircraft carriers, nuclear attack submarines and long-range bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons. Last spring, all these components of the American power, led by the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier, were presented at the exercises and widely advertised. However, this year the Expeditionary Strike Group, led by the USS Wasp amphibious assault ship with latest F-35 fighters, will take part in the exercises. Anyway it is not an aircraft carrier strike group. There are no statements this year on the Allies' so-called “decapitation strikes” - operations aimed to destroy the DPRK's top leadership. In general, despite official Pentagon statements that the exercises will be "about the same scale as before," de facto their scale has been significantly reduced.
Pyongyang has not yetmade harsh public statements condemning the maneuvers and threatening retaliatory measures. Such restraint is quite expectable. When Kim Jong-un in early March met with special envoys of the South Korean president, he reportedly agreed not to view the exercises as an obstacle to the negotiation process. This can be seen as a unilateral concession from North Korea: it turns out that Pyongyang did not launch missiles and nuclear tests for more than four months (since last November), while the opposite side is still conducting military preparations, albeit in rather truncated format. All this fits perfectly into the logic of the diplomatic offensive that Pyongyang has recently deployed on all fronts. One can assume, that the period of relative peace on the peninsula will last at least until April 27 - the planned date of the inter-Korean summit between Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in. The culmination, of course, should be a meeting between Kim and Donald Trump, presumably at the end of May, although there is not any certainty if it really takes place.
If the direct negotiations between the DPRK and the US really happen, then the issue of the US-South Korean military exercises and the US military presence in South Korea certainly will be one of the main issues. It is unlikely for Pyongyang to agree making substantial concessions on its nuclear missile program unless the Americans show a readiness to reduce their military activity on the Korean peninsula. The complete cessation of the exercises, as well as the complete withdrawal of American bases from the peninsula are unlikely, since this would in fact mean the end of the military-political alliance between the United States and the Republic of Korea. However, it is possible to discuss some compromise options, such as reducing the scale of exercises or even withdrawing the part of the American troops from South Korea. For example, one option may be the complete withdrawal of the Eighth United States Army from South Korea. This corresponds to the interests not only of Pyongyang and Beijing, but also of Seoul. Now in power in South Korea are the leftist forces that are not particularly fond of the US military presence on the territory of the country. Moreover, the American servicemen actually enjoy the rights of extraterritoriality, questioning the usefulness of the sovereignty of the Republic of Korea.
The idea of the return of American soldiers from Korea back home may well please Trump, who can present it as the implementation of his campaign promise to cut the US spending on defending the allies. Also it is no secret that in case of the beginning of a large war on the Korean peninsula the Eighth Army is doomed to play the role of the sacrificial lamb (the so-called tripwire force concept). With the development of the North Korean nuclear missile arsenal, the potential fate of American units, which are mostly concentrated in Camp Humphreys (the largest US military base abroad), is becoming even more unenviable. Therefore, Donald Trump can motivate the decision to withdraw the Eighth Army by the increasing risk for servicemen and their families.