Fewer U.S. soldiers will be participating in joint military drills with South Korean forces this year — a move Washington said isn't designed to pacify Pyongyang, but many analysts are skeptical.
Around 17,500 U.S. service members will be participating in the 10-day joint exercise, which began Monday, the U.S. Department of Defense said in a Friday statement. That's down from last year's 25,000 troops. Defense Secretary James Mattis said the downsized numbers reflected a need for fewer personnel and had nothing to do with recent heated rhetoric between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Reuters reported.
Strategists, however, begged to differ.
"Reducing the number of troops involved in the exercises is a strong strategic move," said Troy Stangarone, senior director at the Korea Economic Institute of America. "It helps to deescalate some of the tensions that have developed recently, while not sacrificing on key training exercises, which have become more critical in light of North Korea's increasingly bold moves."
It also demonstrated to the international community that Washington was trying to de-escalate the current crisis, Stangarone added.
U.S.-South Korean military drills typically take place twice a year — March and August — with the intention of honing command operations on the Korean Peninsula. They are part of Washington's strategic defense umbrella in Asia, which includes 28,000 and 50,000 military personnel in South Korea and Japan, respectively.
Pyongyang has long complained about the annual affairs, which began in the 1970s, and the reclusive regime typically retaliates with a missile test. Following this year's war games in March, Kim's regime launched four extended-range missiles into the Sea of Japan. About a year ago, it successfully test-fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile for the first time, and that was followed by its fifth, and biggest, nuclear test.