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Despite North’s protest, air drill will proceed as planned

May 17,2018
South Korea’s defense minister and the commander of the U.S. Forces Korea held an emergency meeting on Wednesday and agreed to proceed with ongoing military exercises as planned after North Korea abruptly called off a high-level meeting with the South in protest of the drill.

Delegations from the two Koreas were supposed to meet at the border village of Panmunjom to discuss ways for both countries to improve relations, but the North abruptly canceled the meeting just hours before it was supposed to take place. The move was a protest to an air drill known as Max Thunder being jointly conducted by South Korean and U.S. forces. The two-week drill began last Friday.

The North’s about-face contrasts with the sentiment it expressed ahead of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics that it recognized the purpose of joint military exercises. This understanding contributed to a detente and led to a landmark inter-Korean summit last month. It also raised speculation that the U.S. Air Force might withhold its B-52 strategic bombers, part of the nuclear umbrella that protects U.S. allies including South Korea, from the Max Thunder drill.

North Korea has generally been sensitive about the B-52 bombers stationed in Guam. Analysts believe they would be part a first strike by the United States should it attack the North.

Shortly after Pyongyang canceled the talks, Song Young-moo, the South’s defense minister, and Gen. Vincent Brooks, commander of the U.S. Forces Korea, held a meeting at around 8 a.m. The Ministry of National Defense later announced that the Max Thunder exercise would “proceed as planned” until May 25 and that “no difference in position” existed between Seoul and Washington on the decision.

“The Max Thunder drill is meant to enhance the ability of pilots,” said Choi Hyun-soo, a spokeswoman for the Defense Ministry. “It is not geared toward implementing an operational plan or attack maneuver.”

The exercise involves about 100 planes, including F-15K fighters and F-16s. Eight F-22 Raptors, the largest ever to join the drill, were deployed from Hawaii. The Defense Ministry did not confirm whether two B-52 bombers at the Anderson Air Force Base in Guam would take part in the Max Thunder drills.

South Korean and U.S. forces have held the Max Thunder drill every year since 2009 to promote interoperability between the two militaries. Last year’s Max Thunder drill was the second-largest aerial exercise held on the Korean Peninsula.

In a briefing in Washington on Tuesday, Heather Nauert, a spokeswoman for the State Department, said, “I will say that [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-un had said previously that he understands the need and the utility of the United States and the Republic of Korea continuing in its joint exercises. They’re exercises that are legal; they’re planned well, well in advance.”

She added that Washington has not “heard anything from that government or the government of South Korea to indicate that we would not continue conducting these exercises or that we would not continue planning for our meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un next month.”

The recent flurry of diplomacy among the South Korean, North Korean and American leaders contrasts with the situation before the Olympics, when the world feared possible war on the peninsula.

CNN reported on Tuesday, citing four current and former White House officials, that Trump had ordered then-national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, to prepare a plan to evacuate the families of all U.S. military personnel living in South Korea weeks before the PyeongChang Winter Olympics.

McMaster then directed his staff at the National Security Council to prepare a presidential memorandum ordering military dependents in South Korea to leave the country. At that time, top national security officials were reportedly concerned that North Korea could interpret this move as the United States heading toward war.

The memorandum was never implemented.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]