South Korea and the United States seemingly unaligned on the issue of suspending a combined air exercise Vigilant Ace. The allies have said that the drill’s suspension will be decided around the time of the Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) slated for later this month in Washington, but discord between the two sides that surfaced in the crunch time has fueled much speculation.
Some observers believe that disharmony partly stemmed from South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo’s reluctance to accept his U.S. counterpart James Mattis’ proposal to cancel the air drill as the country’s first defense chief with an air force background in 24 years. “Minister Jeong, who has repeatedly stressed that his ministry would support the government’s denuclearization efforts with reliable strength, must have felt an immense burden about a security vacuum that could be created by a suspension,” said a military source. Jeong would have suggested that they make a joint announcement after coming up with measures to minimize side effects (possibly including an independent exercise of the South Korean military), but the Pentagon unilaterally issued an announcement.
Meanwhile, some point out that the United States intends to use the postponement of the joint exercise as a bargaining chip in the ongoing defense-cost sharing talks. Washington may be sending a message that joint military exercises will not be held smoothly in the future if the South insists that it cannot share the cost of deploying the U.S. strategic assets. President Trump also said in a press conference following the U.S.-North Korea summit in June that “We will stop the war games which will save us a tremendous amount of money.”
The South Korean government had initially planned to use the suspension of the military exercise as a card to encourage North Korea to arrange a next inter-Korean summit in Seoul and to dismantle its nuclear and missile facilities, but the Pentagon hastily brought up a “carrot” and caused controversy, some experts say. “To my knowledge, Minister Jeong was not aware of the U.S. proposal of suspending the exercise until he met with Mattis at the fifth ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting held last Friday in Singapore,” said a ministry official, hinting at a possibility that the suggestion was made without prior consultation or coordination with Seoul, and misunderstanding or miscommunication may have taken place during the discussion process.
Sang-Ho Yun firstname.lastname@example.org