About the Author
Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
The Republic of Korea Marine Corps (ROKMC) on Friday said it plans to conduct the joint ROK-U.S. Korean Marine Exchange Program (KMEP) military drills 24 times next year.
The exercises have been on hold since June, following the decision by the allies to suspend joint military drills following the U.S.-DPRK summit in Singapore.
In a written statement submitted to an audit of the National Assembly’s defense committee, the South Korean Marine Corps was quoted by local media as having said it will “activate the joint drills to enhance capabilities for combined operations.”
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said that both sides had in June agreed to “indefinitely suspend select military exercises,” including Ulchi Freedom Guardian (UFG) and two KMEP training exercises, while hinting that other drills could take place in the future.
Though the KMEP training exercises were originally slated to be staged 19 times this year, the number of the drills was eventually reduced to 11 in light of ongoing DPRK-U.S. and inter-Korean dialogue, the South Korean military confirmed to NK News on Friday.
2016 and 2017 saw the KMEP training exercises be conducted 14 and 17 times respectively, the ROK military added.
In the aftermath of the bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island by North Korea in 2010, KMEP exercises had taken place on islands near the disputed inter-Korean maritime border on the west coast.
The ROKMC also established the North-West Islands Defense Command (NWIDC) in June 2011, intended to “counter North Korean threats” towards islands in the area.
In June, the South Korean defense ministry announced that the KMEP, which both South Korean and the U.S. Marine Corps had planned to stage between July and September, would be put on pause “as a follow-up measure to the DPRK-U.S. and inter-Korean summit.”
Seoul and Washington, the ROK military added, would “take additional measures if North Korea continues productive consultation based on good intentions.”
Pyongyang typically condemns joint ROK-U.S. exercises: in May the country withdrew from a scheduled inter-Korean high-level meeting at the last minute, citing, among other issues, the then-ongoing Max Thunder drills.
August saw Mattis say the Pentagon has “no plans at this time to suspend any more exercises,” promising to work with the U.S. State Department over the issue.
The U.S. defense chief explained that Seoul and Washington had suspended “several of the largest exercises” but that others would continue.
The South Korean Ministry of National Defense (MND) the following day said it was yet to be decided if Seoul and Washington would conduct the annual Vigilant Ace joint annual air combat exercise later in the year.
Around 230 aircraft, including F-22 Raptors, and F-35A and F-35B stealth fighter jets were mobilized for the one-week-long drill in December last year, which also saw the deployment of B-1B Lancer strategic bombers.
Though it remains unclear if the drills will go ahead, the South’s independent Taeguk Command Post Exercise (CPX) and Hoguk Field Training Exercise (FTX) are set to take place this month.
The Taeguk exercises were originally planned to be held in June, though they were later delayed along with annual civil defense drills due to improving inter-Korean relations and the suspension of large-scale ROK-U.S. joint drills.
The two Koreas last month agreed to stop military exercises aimed at the other along the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) from November 1 as part of a comprehensive military agreement signed in Pyongyang.
Meanwhile, the United Nations Command (UNC) on Friday announced it has reviewed and verified mine clearance in the Joint Security Area (JSA) in “close coordination” with South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).
The two Koreas began a 20-day project to remove mines in the JSA from October 1 as part of the implementation September’s inter-Korean military agreement.
In a statement on Friday, the UNC said it supported the “next steps in implementing additional practical measures” outlined in that agreement, which includes additional mine-sweeping, the removal of guard posts, the reduction of security personnel, the removal of weapons, and the recovery of remains.
“UNC will continue to work closely with the ROK and DPRK to synchronize implementation efforts on the way ahead,” UNC Commander Gen. Vincent Brooks said.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: United States Marine Corps