- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Top U.S. and South Korean military officials are launching a widescale review of all future large-scale military drills between the two allies, with plans to lock in a finalized exercise schedule for the coming year, the defense chiefs from both nations said Wednesday.

Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo met with Defense Secretary James Mattis at the Pentagon Wednesday, for the 50th annual Security Consultative Meeting, designed to further enhance joint military efforts on the Korean Peninsula. But this year’s meeting was held amid questions over the near-term future of those bilateral military efforts, given Washington’s ongoing effort to bolster relations between the U.S. and North Korea.

Part of this effort has been the suspension of several major military exercises between Washington and Seoul, exercises which have formed the backbone of South Korea’s regional defense strategy and its military ties with the U.S. But on Wednesday, Minister Jeong announced plans were underway to review options to restart those critical joint drills.

“We have discussed today … that we will conduct a review from our staff members and have the results of their review until the 15th of November and then we will make the final decision on any major exercises in the next year before the first of December,” the South Korean defense chief said.

“Secretary Mattis and I have agreed that we’ll continue to do our best to support from a military perspective the diplomatic efforts of our countries and we’ll continue our thought process on how we can move forward from this point on,” he told reporters at the Pentagon, shortly after Wednesday’s meeting.

The Trump White House took the controversial step of suspending several major U.S. wargames on the peninsula, as a goodwill gesture toward North Korea, who views the drills as a direct challenge to Pyongyang’s sovereignty. The move was designed to draw concessions from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on denuclearization and other mandates outlined by Mr.Trump, during his landmark summit in June with the North Korean leader in Singapore.

Since then, South Korean military units have continued on with their portions of the suspended military drills, with U.S. military “evaluators” on location “who are able to assess how the exercise is ongoing,” Minister Jeong said.

Critics of the decision argue the suspension of the military drills have sent a chilling message to Seoul and other U.S. allies in the Pacific over Washington’s resolve to confront national security challenges in the region.

Others have claimed that at best, the suspension of the drills has denied Washington an ideal location to prepare U.S. forces for combat. At worst, the suspension has undercut military readiness among U.S. forces deployed on the peninsula.

“It’s hot in the summer, the hills are steep and it’s cold in the winter. It is a great place to train,” Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller told reporters earlier this month, regarding South Korea’s perfect combination of rugged terrain, top-tier training facilities, ease of troop movements and exceedingly proficient partner-nation forces.

On Wednesday, Mr. Mattis refuted the claims that the suspension of exercises has made U.S. forces and their allies on the peninsula vulnerable, from a military preparedness standpoint.

“We are not right now concerned with a loss of combat capability. Clearly as we go forward we’ll have to make adaptations to ensure we don’t lose that capability,” the Pentagon chief said.

“Our goal here is to ensure that our diplomats speak from a position of strength and we continue to protect the people of the Republic of Korea from any threat from the North,” he added.

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