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US may be dialing back North Korea tensions during military drills — by cutting troop numbers

  • Washington is deploying fewer troops to joint military exercises with South Korea
  • Defense Secretary James Mattis says the move has nothing to do with placating North Korea, but strategists say otherwise

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.

A US-South Korea joint military exercise in 2013
JUNG YEON - JE / AFP / Getty
A US-South Korea joint military exercise in 2013

This year, the isolated state could respond with another intercontinental ballistic missile test, warned Harry Kazanis, director of defense studies at the Center For the National Interest, an American think tank. The rogue nation launched an ICBM last month.

Mattis could be concealing the importance of the scaled down forces, Kazanis added.

"One never knows what could be happening in back-channel talks, which seem clearly are happening. Mattis could be saying one thing in public and doing something else privately. It happens more than we know," Kazanis said.

If a diminished U.S. contingent was intended to placate Pyongyang, there would be a key reason why Trump's team would prefer to keep that strategy under wraps.

"Washington does not want to look like it is doing anything that would reinforce bad behavior — North Korea tests missiles and we offer reduced military exercises as a bargaining chip would present some really bad optics," Kazanis continued.

That line of thinking has been a key reason behind Washington's refusal to accept Kim's freeze-for-freeze deal. Earlier this year, Pyongyang proposed halting nuclear activities if Washington stopped all large-scale exercises on the Korean Peninsula.

The smaller number of officers was "significant," said Scott Seaman, Asia director at political consultancy Eurasia Group. It could reflect Trump's two-pronged focus: Improving public relations around the annual exercises in addition to reassuring South Koreans that these drills were not escalating the situation beyond Washington's and Seoul's control, Seaman continued.

Kim has yet to comment on the figures, but it's not clear whether he would welcome the move. China, meanwhile, may appreciate the White House taking steps to decrease the footprint of these exercises, Seaman noted.