US, South Korea suspend more drills to bolster North Korea diplomacy

South Koreans protest during a rally in front of the US embassy in Seoul on Dec 4, 2017, to show opposition to joint South Korea-US Air-force exercises. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SINGAPORE (REUTERS) - The United States and South Korea have suspended upcoming joint air defense drills to give diplomatic efforts with North Korea "every opportunity to continue," the US military said on Friday (Oct 19).

The Pentagon said the decision to suspend Exercise Vigilant Ace, which had been scheduled for December, was taken by US Defence Secretary James Mattis and South Korean Defence Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo, who met in Singapore on Friday.

Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said in a statement that the decision had been taken to "give the diplomatic process every opportunity to continue."

"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 said.

She added that Mattis had spoken with his Japanese counterpart as well on the issue.

The two Koreas have held three summits this year. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un also held an unprecedented summit with US President Donald Trump in Singapore in June, where the leaders promised to work towards denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.

Vigilant Ace is one of several exercises that have been suspended since the summit to encourage dialogue aimed at getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

Last year, Vigilant Ace had more than 230 aircraft, including six F-22 Raptor stealth fighters, and around 12,000 US service members.

Trump caught many US officials off guard earlier this year when he announced after his summit with Kim that the United States was suspending the summer's joint military drills with South Korea, known as Ulchi Freedom Guardian.

"If we continue to suspend the major exercises, our military capacity will begin to atrophy," said Abraham Denmark, a former deputy assistant secretary of defence for East Asia under President Barack Obama.

Denmark said the US military could likely tolerate the suspension of major exercises for about a year before serious challenges to military readiness and capability.

Last month, the Pentagon's pick to be the new commander of US forces in South Korea said the decision to suspend some joint exercises between South Korea and the United States was a "prudent risk" but had caused a "slight degradation" in military readiness.

Denmark said joint exercises were particularly important as a new commander, US Army General Robert Abrams, takes charge of US forces in South Korea.

Washington and Seoul both publicly insist they are on the same page about dealing with Pyongyang. But behind the scenes, there are growing signs of disagreement as South and North Korea forge ahead with plans to defuse military tensions and rebuild economic ties.

"The US continues to make these major, substantive concessions and the North Koreans continue to drag out any sort of diplomatic process towards denuclearisation," Denmark said.

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