US and South Korea call off another major military exercise, hoping to give diplomacy with Pyongyang a chance
- The Pentagon says the annual Vigilant Ace air exercises have been suspended ‘to give the diplomatic process every opportunity to continue’
- A US official said Donald Trump’s next meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will not be until next year
The United States and South Korea are scrapping another major military exercise this year, a Pentagon official said on Friday, citing a push for diplomatic progress with North Korea.
The top Pentagon spokeswoman, Dana White, said Washington and Seoul were suspending an air exercise known as Vigilant Ace “to give the diplomatic process every opportunity to continue”.
It was the latest move aimed at trying to nudge North Korea, which despises such US-South Korean exercises, into negotiating about giving up its nuclear weapons in a way that can be verified.
Vigilant Ace is an annual exercise last held in December 2017.
White said Mattis and his South Korean counterpart were “committed to modifying training exercises to ensure the readiness of our forces”.
“They pledged to maintain close coordination and evaluate future exercises,” she said.
She said Mattis consulted Japan’s Minister of Defence Takeshi Iwaya on the matter and they “reaffirmed their commitment to regional security.”
Mattis was in Singapore for a meeting of Asian defence ministers. On Friday he met jointly with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts and then met separately with the Japanese minister.
In June the Pentagon cancelled this year’s Freedom Guardian exercise after US President Donald Trump abruptly announced that he disapproved of what he called US “war games” in South Korea. He called the manoeuvres provocative and expensive.
Trump made the announcement after meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
A senior administration official said on Saturday that a second meeting between Trump and Kim Jong-un will not happen this year.
“A meeting is likely sometime after the first of the year,” the US official told reporters in Washington.
For decades, North Korea has strongly objected to large-scale US-South Korean military exercises, calling them dress rehearsals for an invasion and part of an American strategy to stifle the North. The US has insisted the manoeuvres are strictly defensive and are necessary to ensure a strong defence against the North, which invaded the South in 1950, prompting the US to end the conflict on the South’s side.
Last year’s version of Vigilant Ace lasted about one week and involved more than 200 aircraft from the US and South Korea flying from eight bases. The stated purpose, as with most such manoeuvres between the US and its allies, is to ensure that the two militaries can operate together effectively and safely in wartime and to deter an adversary like North Korea.
Senior US military officials have said they have ways of adjusting to limited suspensions of exercises with South Korea but that at some point the lack of exercising the procedures involved in commanding and controlling combat forces will erode their preparedness for war.
The nominee to take over as the top American commander in South Korea, Army General Robert Abrams, said at his Senate confirmation hearing in September the suspensions this year had contributed to a “slight” dip in combat readiness.
Additional reporting by Reuters