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Suspension of scheduled joint drill feeds speculation over other regular exercises

With South Korea and the US canceling a large-scale joint military drill slated for August, speculation is rising over the prospect of other training drills scheduled to follow the suspended Freedom Guardian exercise.

In the past years when North Korea conducted nuclear and missile tests, a series of bilateral and trilateral military exercises took place even after the scheduled command-post Freedom Guardian exercises ended.

While the allies’ militaries have stressed that no decision has been made on regular exercises that will follow the Freedom Guardian, there is speculation that those drills could be adjusted depending on future denuclearization talks with North Korea. 

“When it comes to further measures, South Korea and the US will continue to coordinate with each other,” said Choi Hyun-soo, Ministry of National Defense spokesperson, on Tuesday, responding to a question about what would happen to the allies’ other military drills. 

US chopper takes off at Camp Humphrey in Pyongtaek. Yonhap
US chopper takes off at Camp Humphrey in Pyongtaek. Yonhap

Chief among those “regular exercises” are a large-scale air combat drill between South Korea and US air forces -- called Vigilant Ace -- and a trilateral ballistic missile defense exercise among South Korea, the US and Japan.

The last time these exercises took place was December 2017 -- when the Trump administration pursued a strategy of “maximum pressure” in response to North Korea’s relentless nuclear and ballistic missile tests.

Now that North Korea has suspended the provocative tests and the Trump administration is refraining from using the term “maximum pressure,” questions are being raised over whether those military drills will proceed on a scale similar to that of previous years.

“South Korea and the US will look into every aspect of joint military exercises and see what sort of exercise can be suspended,” said a military official from South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

Fueling the speculation is the cancellation of a scheduled planning meeting of the US-South Korea Combined Forces Command, which oversees command-post military drills with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for next year’s Key Resolve exercise after the Freedom Guardian drill was officially suspended.

The Combined Force Command has reportedly informed South Korean staff that it canceled the Initial Planning Conference for the 2019 Key Resolve. The meeting was scheduled in conjunction with the Final Planning Conference for the Freedom Guardian exercise slated for August.

To work out details of the computer-simulated exercise, South Korea and the US militaries hold general-level conferences and working-level meetings in the lead up to the Key Resolve and Freedom Guardian exercise.

“Canceling the meeting does not mean we will cancel the Key Resolve exercise. It’s just one of the procedures to prepare for the exercise and scheduling another meeting is not difficult to do,” said a CFC official, who requested anonymity, citing office rules.

Involving tens of thousands of troops from the US and South Korea, the two countries’ militaries held the Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise -- a combination of the computer-simulated Freedom Guardian military exercise and the government-led Ulchi exercise. Cheong Wa Dae has indicated that the Ulchi exercise could be suspended as well.

By Yeo Jun-suk (