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South, U.S. to suspend aerial drill

Likely suspension aimed at bolstering engagement with North
Nov 04,2019
South Korea and the United States are likely to suspend their annual combined aerial exercises for the second time ever in an apparent effort to bolster diplomatic engagement with North Korea.

According to a military source in South Korea, Seoul and Washington’s defense officials reached an early understanding to skip their annual Vigilant Ace exercise scheduled for December this year that is to be confirmed at the two countries’ security consultative meeting later this month.

The exercises will instead be replaced by separate air drills to be independently conducted by their respective air forces to maintain “military readiness” at all times, the source said.

To explain the motives behind the decision, a South Korean defense official said it was the government’s position to “continue to bolster diplomatic efforts on a military level,” implying the move may be intended to buttress denuclearization negotiations with North Korea, which has strongly objected to U.S.-South Korea joint military drills in the past.

Vigilant Ace is one of the largest aviation exercises regularly conducted by the two allies since its creation in 2015. December 2017’s drills involved a force totaling in around 230 aircraft mobilized at the Osan Air Base, including F-22s, F-35As and F-35Bs, as part of a massive show of strength aimed at relaying a warning to North Korea.

North Korea at the time had just tested its most advanced ballistic missile to date, an intercontinental ballistic missile called the Hwasong-15 that is presumed to be able to reach the continental United States.

Yet a turnaround in the situation on the Korean Peninsula, culminating with U.S. President Donald Trump’s first summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in June last year, led the allies to stand down in their military posture to avoid jeopardizing the peace process.

After then-U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis met South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo at a defense chief’s meeting in October 2018, the two countries announced they would suspend Vigilant Ace that year “for the purpose of achieving complete denuclearization.”

Several other joint military exercises have since been shelved or scaled down since, including Foal Eagle - a massive land, sea and air operation -and Key Resolve, a computerized command post drill, which were replaced by a smaller variant in the Dong Maeng command post exercise.

These efforts to defuse tension, however, did not prevent the North Koreans from ramping up their provocations toward Seoul and Washington as denuclearization talks entered a stalemate. Pyongyang has conducted a total of 12 weapons tests so far this year, from May to Thursday, when the North claimed it had tested a “super-large multiple rocket launcher.”

This most recent launch, which South Korea’s leading presidential defense official on Friday said was not a grave threat to Seoul’s security, is believed to be an attempt by Pyongyang to ramp up pressure on Washington as part of the fallout from failed working-level nuclear talks in Stockholm earlier this month.

With North Korea threatening dire consequences if its demands are not met by the end of this year, Seoul and Washington may be opting to keep their military activities low key so as not to create unwanted contingencies for an already beleaguered negotiation process.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]