South Korea suspends civilian drills as Pentagon reveals US$14m savings in scrapping war exercise
The civilian drill, called the Ulchi exercises, usually takes place every August in tandem with the joint Freedom Guardian military drill with the United States
South Korea has suspended its summertime civil defence drills aimed at preparing against a North Korean attack to keep alive a positive atmosphere for nuclear diplomacy with the North.
Seoul’s decision on Tuesday to “temporarily suspend” the nationwide civilian drills had been anticipated since the United States and South Korea halted their annual military exercises following a summit last month between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Streets in South Korean cities froze at the sound of air-raid sirens every year during the Ulchi drills in August with cars stopping on roads, pedestrians moving into buildings and subway stations, and government workers evacuating from their offices.
Kim Boo-kyum, minister of the interior and safety, said the suspension of the civilian drills was a follow-up to the suspension of the military exercises amid recent changes in “South-North relations and other security situations.”
He said the government and military would work to design a new civil defence programme to be launched next year that will be aimed at preparing people for natural disasters and terrorist attacks in addition to military attacks.
The Ulchi civilian drills were launched in 1968, a year after a failed attempt by North Korean commandos to assassinate then-South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee.
There had been criticism on whether the civilian exercises were adequately preparing South Koreans from North Korean threats.
For most South Koreans, there’s no real training, with people standing around in gathering spots, staring into their phones or looking frustrated.
Many schools didn’t participate in the air-raid drills.
While South Korea has nearly 19,000 evacuation shelters, mostly in subway stations and parking garages, surveys have shown most people did not know which shelters were closest to their homes.
The Ulchi exercises usually take place in tandem with the joint Freedom Guardian military drill with the United States.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon put a dollar amount – about US$14 million – on the costs of Freedom Guardian, which was shelved after Trump met with Kim in a historic summit Singapore last month.
When Trump announced the US would halt joint military drills with South Korea, he backed his controversial move by citing the “tremendous” costs of such exercises.
Trump later added on Twitter that the decision would “save a fortune”.
The around US$14 million is not an insignificant sum, but represents only a tiny portion of the Pentagon’s US$700 billion budget.
Pentagon spokesman Colonel Rob Manning, who disclosed the figure, did not provide a breakdown of how it was calculated.
Many of the costs associated with conducting large-scale drills are already baked into a military budget, as troops are continually training regardless of whether a formal exercise is underway.
America has about 28,500 troops based in South Korea and they routinely train with their local counterparts.
Freedom Guardian, which was to involve about 17,500 US troops, is usually an annual exercise that lasts two weeks.
It is based on a computerised command-and-control drill that Pyongyang considers a highly provocative rehearsal for invasion.
Trump faced a backlash for scrapping the drills, with critics saying he gave in too readily to Kim’s request to halt the exercises while getting little in terms of tangible commitments from Pyongyang in return.
Associated Press, Agence France-Presse