ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
President Trump made a surprising concession to North Korea. He announced that the U.S. military would suspend joint military exercises with South Korea.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We'll be saving a tremendous amount of money, plus I think it's very provocative.
SHAPIRO: Provocative is how Pyongyang has characterized these drills. They've served as a major defense strategy for Seoul in case of an attack from the North. Here to talk us through this announcement and its possible consequences is NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Hi, Tom.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: What was the Pentagon's response to this announcement? Were they taken by surprise?
BOWMAN: Well, it seems they were. And from talking with people, it seems this was not planned at the Pentagon before the summit but was decided on the ground in Singapore. And the military, by the way, has not received any orders to cancel the next military exercise in August, so that gives you a sense of surprise. And the South Koreans said they're still trying to figure out what it all means. So they clearly were surprised as well.
SHAPIRO: There was also some confusion on Capitol Hill today about whether or not these exercises were actually off. Ultimately, we've concluded they're not going to happen. But, as you say, they haven't officially been cancelled.
SHAPIRO: So when are they scheduled to happen, and what's the purpose? What are they practicing for?
BOWMAN: Well, there are several large exercises each year. There's one in the spring called Foal Eagle with tens of thousands of soldiers, aircraft and artillery. And another one in August - Ulchi-Freedom Guardian. And they're designed so both the U.S. and South Korean troops can plan against any attack from the North. That's the one that has not been canceled yet. Now, why are these necessary? Because you have new troops coming in from the U.S. every year - new South Korean troops. So officials say they must be highly trained for any kind of scenario with the North. And also it's important to note that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis's top priority is to have a more trained and lethal American force.
SHAPIRO: And President Trump also mentioned that he would like to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea altogether. What have you heard from military officials about that?
BOWMAN: Well, first of all, the president says that's not on the table right now - removing the 28,000 U.S. troops in South Korea. And South Korean officials say, listen, if there's going to be any reduction in troops, we want to talk about that with the U.S. We'll decide it together. Now, some say it's important to have U.S. troops there to deter any Northern aggression - make the South feel more comfortable and sort of assure allies like Japan. But the president has long talked about bringing the troops home. And for the president, it's all about saving money. We just heard him say that canceling what he calls war games will save a tremendous amount of money. That's not really the case. Maintaining troops in South Korea - that's serious amount of money. That's hundreds of millions of dollars every year.
SHAPIRO: But pulling those troops out would be a much bigger step than canceling the war games.
BOWMAN: Yes, and a very controversial one. A lot of people on the Hill would say that's not a good idea. A lot of military officers, I think, would say that's unwise.
SHAPIRO: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, thanks so much for coming in to the studio.
BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.