Correction at 1720 KST on 23/10: A previous version of this article said Mattis had said in June that there were no further plans to pause other joint exercises, when it fact he said this in August. It has been amended to reflect this.
Washington and Seoul on Friday agreed to suspend the Vigilant Ace joint military exercises in light of the ongoing diplomatic outreach with North Korea.
U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and South Korea’s Minister of National Defense Jeong Kyeong-doo agreed to the suspension while attending the annual ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus in the Philippines.
It’s hoped the suspension will “give the diplomatic process every opportunity to continue,” Pentagon press secretary Dana White said in a statement carried to U.S. media.
“Both ministers are committed to modifying training exercises to ensure the readiness of our forces. They pledged to maintain close coordination and evaluate future exercises,” White added.
Earlier this year Washington also suspended the large-scale Ulchi Freeedom Guardian joint exercises and two exchange program training exercises, giving a similar explanation to Friday’s suspension.
“To support implementing the outcomes of the Singapore Summit, and in coordination with our Republic of Korea ally, Secretary Mattis has indefinitely suspended select exercises,” White said at the time.
“This includes suspending FREEDOM GUARDIAN along with two Korean Marine Exchange Program training exercises scheduled to occur in the next three months.”
The most recent suspension comes despite Mattis saying in August that there were no further plans to pause other joint exercises.
The Vigilant Ace joint exercises are primarily air power exercises though typically ground troops are also involved.
According to the Defense Post, last year’s drills involved over 230 aircraft including F22 Raptor stealth jet fighters.
The announcement follows earlier news from Seoul that the U.S. and South Korea would resume joint ROK-U.S. Korean Marine Exchange Program (KMEP) military drills next year.
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.
During the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting, Japan, South Korea and the U.S. also said they would work together on preventing North Korean ship-to-ship transfers at sea.
South Korea is not currently part of efforts to enforce UN resolutions at sea which prohibit North Korea from transferring fuel or other cargos directly from one vessel to another, but no further details on Seoul’s contributions to the enforcement efforts were available.
Currently, the U.S., the UK, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand have contributed military assets to track North Korea’s illicit activities in the waters around the Korean Peninsula and northeast China.