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Is 'Training' A 'War Game?' The Answer Could Determine U.S.-South Korea Exercises

Here's something to ponder: how do you define a war game? And when is it a military exercise, or just simply..."training."

That's at the heart of some confusion between the White House and the Pentagon, an institution that doesn't - unlike President Trump - use the term "war game."

The president suspended one large military exercise and a couple of smaller ones in a good faith gesture with North Korea in June, an effort to spur talks about the country's nuclear program.

But now that talks have stalled, there's a question about whether other military exercises will be suspended as well.

At the Pentagon on Tuesday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis had this to say.

"We suspended several exercises at the direction of the president. The good faith effort was made. We have had, we have done no planning to suspend others."

"No planning to suspend others." But the next day President Trump said this in a tweet:

"There is no reason at this time to be spending large amounts of money on joint US-South Korea war games. ....Besides the president can instantly start the joint exercises again with South Korea and Japan, if he chooses."

Is the president talking about the exercises he already suspended? Or the ones being planned for the future? It's not clear. It's a simple tweet. But some of those exercises are coming up pretty fast, and Mattis said planning is underway.

So the Pentagon is now drawing up a list of everything it is doing with South Korea, all exercises and training events. And they are struggling to determine the terminology for each.

One is called Courageous Channel. That's an exercise slated for October that practices evacuating civilians in case of a North Korean attack, or the threat of one.

Another one later in the fall is called Vigilant Ace. That involves U.S. and South Korean warplanes.

The Pentagon will work with the White House to determine what military activity is acceptable to the president and what is not. Back in June, after the president met with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, he canceled a military exercise slated for this month. He did so at the urging of Kim, who called the annual exercise "provocative," a word Trump echoed.

Top military officials were caught by surprise.

And the Pentagon is already planning for one of its largest annual exercises, Foal Eagle, which is held in the spring. It involves tens of thousands of U.S. and South Korean troops, along with ships and aircraft.

Officials say if that exercise is canceled, it could lead to lower readiness levels for U.S. troops in Korea, meaning the troops are not adequately prepared to fight. And as the military likes to say: "We train as we fight."

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Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.