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[Herald Interview] South Korea-US drills to be “consistent” with previous ones: US Navy commander

Adm. Scott Swift downplays the S. Korean Defense Minister’s remark about scaling down US deployment

Joint South Korea-US military drills will be held on a scale “consistent” with the previous ones, a top US Navy commander stressed, downplaying speculations surrounding the resumption of the annual drills postponed until after the Paralympics here.

US Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Scott Swift. Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald.
US Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Scott Swift. Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald.

In an interview with The Korea Herald on Thursday, US Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Scott Swift also noted that there was “no indication” from the South Korean military to change the scope of the upcoming Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises, which are expected to resume at the start of April.

Adm. Scott arrived in Seoul on Wednesday to meet with South Korea’s senior military leaders, including Minister of National Defense Song Young-moo, Gen. Jeong Kyeong-doo, chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other Seoul‘s senior foreign affairs officials. 

“All of my discussions have been in the context of the consistency of the pending exercises. They would be the same size, scope and scale as previous exercises,” Swift said during the interview, which came hours after his meeting with Defense Minister Song. 

“I haven’t seen any diminishment in the support and enthusiasm for the continued exercises. I can assure you that our planning is consistent... The same number of forces are training to participate as we have expected, based on the joint planning today as there was in the past.”

His comments came amid the speculation that South Korea might want to scale down the scope of the exercise in order to sustain inter-Korean detente following the PyeongChang Olympics. On Friday, Washington and Pyongyang agreed to hold a summit by May.

President Moon Jae-in’s special adviser Moon Chung-in suggested low-profile exercises, suggesting that the field-training Foal Eagle exercise be “adjusted” while the computer-simulated Key Resolve exercise proceeds as planned.

Fueling the speculation is Defense Minister Song’s remark that Swift should do his part to prevent the deployment of US strategic assets, including nuclear-powered submarines. The defense ministry later described Song’s comment as “well-wishing” remarks for Swift, who will retire around May.

“I wouldn’t characterize Minster Song’s as having said that. Those may have been his words, but that’s not how I took it,” Swift said. “Being a retired admiral, he is quick to suggest of what I should do with the naval forces assigned to me.”

“Song and I have a continuing discussion of flexibility of the maritime forces. I took his comment to be a little bit of ribbing, that now is the time for consistency and we should continue to leverage the flexibility that the naval forces have.”

Regarding increased activities of US Naval Forces in the Asia Pacific, the outgoing commander said those moves were not intended for any particular countries, including North Korea, rather an effort to enhance ties to the countries in the region.

On Tuesday, USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier made a historic port call to Vietnam for the first time since the end of Vietnam War. Amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard arrived Sunday in Manila for a port visit after taking part in multinational Cobra Gold drills in Thailand.

Swift stressed that there is “no increase” in the scope and scale of maritime forces assigned to the Pacific Fleet, which consists of approximately 200 ships and submarines, nearly 1,200 aircraft, and more than 130,000 sailors and civilians.

“We have consistently said 60 percent of the Navy would be assigned to the Pacific Fleet. We just crossed that threshold and we have now achieved that goal. That has been the goal that was established years ago.”

Having left Sasebo Naval Base in Japan for the first time since arriving at its new homeport earlier this year, another amphibious assault ship USS Wasp has underwent training to come support the exercise in the region, Swift added.

By Yeo Jun-suk (