The suspension of South Korea-U.S. joint military drills is getting increasingly protracted. After ‘Vigilant Ace,’ a joint air exercise that was scheduled in December, was decided to be postponed at the South Korea-U.S. Security Consultative Meeting held on Wednesday, military sources predict that the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle drills scheduled in March and April next year will highly likely be postponed as well. If ‘dialogue relay’ including the North Korea-U.S. high-level meeting scheduled next week, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s return visit to Seoul take place, followed by the second Pyongyang-Washington summit early next year, the South Korean and U.S. authorities will naturally seek to postpone military drills again. If so, joint military drills will be put on hold for more than one year after the Key Resolve-Foal Eagle’ drills, which were conducted at a reduced scale in April and May this year.
South Korea-U.S. joint military drills are largely conducted in the two groups of the Key Resolve-Foal Eagle exercises in the first half and the Ulchi Freedom Guardian in the second. There are also several smaller drills including at the company or battalion scales, but KR-FE and UFG are the only drills in which the two allies practice and examine the procedure to stage operation to expand the U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula in line with joint operation plans in the event of armed conflict. UFG, which was scheduled in August this year, was cancelled in a surprise move due to the June 12 North Korea-U.S. summit, and the drill will be conducted independently by the South Korean military from next year.
Suspension of South Korea-U.S. joint drills is the most cherished wish for Pyongyang. The military authorities of South Korea and the U.S. will reportedly review measures including supplementary actions for suspended drills, and preparation of special drills to verify South Korea’s capability required for transfer of wartime operational control, but the North could raise issue with these measures as well. South Korea-U.S. joint military drills are not designed for launching attack at the North. Officers in the South Korean and U.S. military get their positions changed every year or every other year, and if the drills are postponed for more than a year, they will have no chance to test their teamwork. A protracted suspension of joint drills could actually reduce South Korea-U.S. joint defense capability in conjunction with transfer of wartime operational control. Robert Abrams, nominee of the U.S. Forces (South) Korea commander, already expressed concern in his Senate confirmation hearing in September, saying “Postpone of drills has weakened the combined forces’ defense readiness to some extent.” South Korea-U.S. joint military drills, which serve as the biggest deterrence against the North and a measure to pressure the North to come to the negotiating table, should not be suspended for too long.