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Seoul pulled out of air drill over bombers: WSJ

May 21,2018
South Korea reportedly pulled out of a joint military exercise involving B-52 bombers from the United States last week, saying it did not want to generate tension before a summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

A joint air drill involving the United States, South Korea and Japan was supposed to take place last week, but the South decided not to participate, according to U.S. officials, The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday.

“The initial plan for the three-nation air drill was for two U.S. B-52s to fly from Guam and participate in training with the Japanese and South Korean air forces,” the paper reported U.S. officials as saying. After South Korea’s defense minister, Song Young-moo, met with Gen. Vincent Brooks, commander of the U.S. Forces Korea, early in the week, “the B-52 training mission was adjusted to avoid South Korean airspace and to involve only the Japanese,” the paper reported.

During a lecture in Seoul on Wednesday, Moon Chung-in, a special adviser to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, said the defense minister had met with General Brooks and “made sure that B-52s would not fly over Korean airspace.”

The B-52 bombers are able to carry nuclear weapons, which is why they irk North Korea. The United States has used the planes before. After North Korea said it tested a hydrogen bomb in January 2016, the U.S. Air Force sent a B-52 and F-16 to South Korea as a show of force.

On Thursday, two B-52s flew to Japan’s Air Defense Identification Zone and trained with Japanese F-2s. They did not enter Korean airspace.

The exercise, called Blue Lightning, is separate from the U.S.-South Korea drill known as Max Thunder, which runs from May 11 to this Friday and involves some 100 planes.

The U.S. government has not commented on South Korea’s reported decision to pull out of Blue Lightning. South Korea’s Defense Ministry did not comment on Blue Lightning either but said in a statement that B-52s would not be used in Max Thunder.

A South Korean government source said any decision to pull out of Blue Lightning must have been made from the beginning. “South Korea and the United States must have decided earlier on that they would not introduce strategic assets like B-52s into Korean airspace before the U.S.-North summit is held,” the source said.

Last October, Minister Song and U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said in a joint press conference in Washington that they agreed U.S. strategic assets should be deployed to Korea.

Trump and Kim are scheduled to meet in Singapore on June 12. Last week, however, North Korea threatened to walk out of the summit, citing Max Thunder as the reason.

Still, according to a source that spoke exclusively to the JoongAng Ilbo, Kim is reportedly fine with the U.S. military’s current presence on the Korean Peninsula.

“Because of the domestic situation in South Korea and its alliance with the United States, though we aren’t ready to tolerate the situation, we are willing to leave it as it is for now,” Kim allegedly told U.S. State Secretary Mike Pompeo during their meeting earlier this month.

BY LEE CHUL-JAE, ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]