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View more articles by Dagyum Ji
Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
South Korea and the U.S. are in talks over plans to push ahead with a series of modified annual air combat drills, Seoul’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) said on Tuesday.
In news which comes several days after Seoul’s Yonhap News Agency reported that the U.S. and ROK militaries had agreed to suspend the large-scale annual Vigilant Ace exercise, South Korea admitted that a potentially more low-key operation was in the works.
“The ROK and the U.S. are adjusting… detailed implementation plans for each training in close consultation to maintain the combined readiness posture,” MND spokesperson Choi Hyun-soo said during a news briefing.
The spokesperson declined to share the title of the upcoming adjusted joint air combat drills, likely to take place in the next few weeks, asking reporters for their “understanding that the details of training cannot be disclosed.”
In the aftermath of Yonhap’s report, multiple local major media including KBS on Sunday said the South Korean and U.S. military authorities were in discussion over the suspension of the Vigilant Ace, citing unnamed MND officials.
That suspension had yet to be formally decided, the reports suggested, and later comments by a Pentagon official on Monday appeared to contradict the claims.
Speaking to Voice of America, spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Eastburn insisted that South Korea and the U.S. were planning on “proceeding with the Combined Flying Training Event as planned.”
Speaking at the National Assembly’s defense committee, South Korean defense minister Jeong Kyeong-doo on Monday also directly refuted the reports, saying that Seoul and Washington had renamed the drills and that they would be “adjusted.”
“We plan to stage [Vigilant Ace] ordinarily but in an adjusted manner, taking account of various circumstances,” he told lawmakers, adding that the goal of the drill was to “maintain combined defense readiness.”
Seoul and Washington, the minister stressed, will “plan and implement the exercise so that they can substantively develop our capabilities.”
In the wake of the first North Korea-U.S. summit in July last year, the South Korean and U.S. militaries ended a number of previously-regularized large-scale military drills, including the Key Resolve and Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercises.
They have also staged a number of scaled-down and modified iterations of previous drills.
October last year saw Seoul and Washington agree to suspend the Vigilant Ace joint military drills, then scheduled to be conducted in December, with a view to supporting diplomacy between the U.S. and North Korea.
In the place of the Vigilant Ace, the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) in early December kicked off a round of independent air combat drills and a small-scale ROK-U.S. combined exercise.
The large-scale and week-long Vigilant Ace, which was designed to test the combat capabilities and enhance the interoperability of the U.S. and South Korean air forces, first took place in November 2015.
In December 2017, a total of 230 aircraft from the two countries participated in the combined drills.
North Korean state media has already denounced plans for a resumption of the Vigilant Ace drills, with a pronouncement issued by the Reunification and Propaganda Department of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country (CPRC) on August 8 condemning the move.
In a similar case, the North on April 25 warned the U.S. and South Korea to expect a “corresponding response” and “countermeasures” against scaled-down drills intended at replacing the canceled Max Thunder.
The press statement, issued by a CPRC spokesperson, was also featured by the ruling party daily the Rodong Sinmun and aired by state broadcaster Korean Central Television (KCTV).
A few days after that statement was released, North Korea on May 4 test-launched “long-range multiple rocket launchers and tactical guided weapons” with leader Kim Jong Un in attendance.
A round of joint U.S.-ROK military drills staged between August 5 and 20 also saw the North test-fire new weapons several times.
Ahead of those exercises, the DPRK’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) on July 16 warned that its commitment to discontinue nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) testing was not a “legal document inscribed on a paper.”
Between July 25 and August 24, the North test-fired new weapons systems, including the KN-23 short-range quasi-ballistic missile and the KN-25 “super-large multiple rocket launcher” system (MLRS), seven times.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: U.S. Air Force, file photo