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Pause in Military Drills, Ordered by Trump, Leaves South Koreans Uneasy

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President Trump’s complaints about the cost of the exercises, and of the American military presence itself, have some Koreans fearing for their security.
SEOUL, South Korea — For six decades, joint exercises held by the militaries of South Korea and the United States have been the most visible and celebrated display of the alliance. Each year, their Marines storm South Korean beaches together, their tanks spew orange-red flames and their warplanes run mock bombing raids on imaginary North Korean nuclear targets.
Such scenes, broadcast on prime-time television, have been a frequent reminder for South Koreans of how much the country depends on the alliance for its security.
Now they are dealing with a jarring new reality: an American president who does not like the drills, at least in part because they cost too much. President Trump, who in June suspended the exercises after meeting with the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, reaffirmed his misgivings on Wednesday, saying he saw “ no reason at this time to be spending large amounts of money on joint U. S.-South Korea war games .”
His remarks on Twitter came a day after his defense secretary, Jim Mattis, seemed to open the door to resuming the drills. Mr. Trump said he could do so “instantly” if he chose, and that, if he did, the joint exercises would be “far bigger than ever before.”
Mr. Trump has objected to the cost of the American military presence in South Korea since he was a presidential candidate. Those persistent complaints, along with his often-confusing stance on the alliance, have unsettled many South Koreans, some of whom fear that Mr. Trump could strike a deal with North Korea that would leave their security compromised.
“We sometimes wonder, ‘Is he really the president of our ally?’” said Moon Seong-mook, a retired general affiliated with the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy, a conservative think tank in Seoul. “He is so confusing. Is he really the shrewd negotiator he says he is, with us missing the method behind his madness, or is he just plain impulsive?”
South Korean officials say the suspension, which President Moon Jae-in supported, was needed to reduce tensions with the North and to coax it into negotiating about giving up nuclear arms. Both the South Korean and American militaries say the suspension will not affect their readiness to respond to a threat from the North.
But not everyone is convinced. About 60 percent of the officers of the combined South Korean-United States Forces Command, which coordinates the joint drills, are set to leave for other posts in a year because of routine rotations, according to Kim Min-seok, a former Defense Ministry spokesman who is now a columnist on military affairs at the JoongAng Ilbo, a major South Korean newspaper.

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