25.11.2019 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Will This Year’s Vigilant Ace Mark the End of US-DPRK Dialogue?


We ended our previous report on the issues plaguing the dialogue between the DPRK and the United States with the statement from 6 November by Kwon Jong Gun, the Roving Ambassador of the Foreign Ministry of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, on the fact that the USA and the ROK will hold joint military drills in December 2019. In this article, we will provide more details about the problems associated with such exercises in general, and about the extent of tensions at present.

The annual aerial military drills Vigilant Ace are typically held in December and offer an opportunity to rehearse large-scale attacks on North Korea.  For instance, in 2017, approximately 230 aircraft took part in the training, during which they conducted air strikes on targets located in a training area in close proximity to the border with the DPRK.

In 2018, Vigilant Ace was not conducted in an effort to bolster peace talks. Instead, the air force staged an integrated training exercise involving only dozens of F-15K fighter aircraft.   However, in 2019, such drills increased in frequency and this issue is not limited to the events of this nature in December. This year, quite a few exercises (either joint or separate) have been held.  But, unlike North Korean military drills, such trainings do not often become the subject of reports in the media.

From 27 to 30 May, the Ulchi Taegeuk civilian-military drills were conducted in the ROK. They combined South Korean military’s Taegeuk command post exercise with the ROK-US joint war game Ulchi Freedom Guardian.  ROK’s Ministry of National Defense spokeswoman Choi Hyun-soo told a press briefing on 27 May that the exercises were defensive in nature and limited in scope. Still, 480,000 staff members from 4,000 state agencies participated in the drills.

On 30 May, during a forum organized by the Brookings Institution, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford stated that the ROK and the United States had to continue staging joint military exercises in order to maintain combat readiness in case diplomatic efforts directed towards North Korea failed. In his opinion, the allies have not changed their stance on the need for joint drills but they have been scaled down.

On 4 June, the news broke of the upcoming exercises to test “South Korea’s ability to assume operational control of a combined US –South Korean force during wartime.” During these drills, the Combined Forces Command was to be headed by General Park Han-ki, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Republic of Korea Armed Forces, with Robert B. Abrams, the commander of United Nations Command and of United States Forces Korea, serving as his Vice Commander. In addition, the 19-2 Dong Maeng joint military exercise was scheduled for August (instead of Ulchi Freedom Guardian).

From 9 to 12 July, a four-day multinational maritime exercise codenamed Eastern Endeavor 19, aimed at “fighting the trafficking of weapons of mass destruction,” took place in Busan.

In the middle of July 2019, during the regularly scheduled ROK-US joint naval military exercise Silent Shark, involving submarines (held every two years in the vicinity of Guam), South Korea’s KSS-II/ Type 214 submarine (with the displacement tonnage of 1,800 tons), and a P-3C anti-submarine and maritime surveillance aircraft were used for the first time. The United States employed a nuclear submarine and a Boeing P-8 Poseidon (for anti-submarine warfare and reconnaissance) during these drills.

On 26 July, South Korean naval forces conducted counter-piracy exercises near Geojedo Island of Gyeongsangnam province. They rehearsed actions to be taken in case South Korea’s civilian vessel was seized by pirates, including sending signals for help, dispatching naval forces to the incident site and conducting a special operation. The exercise was staged in response to an increased frequency of attacks by pirates off the coast of Somalia, in the Strait of Malacca and the Gulf of Guinea.

In August, ROK’s naval forces staged 2-day military drills around Dokdo islands (Takeshima in Japanese), which are the subject of a territorial dispute with Japan. Considering the importance and the scale of the training, it was named the “East Sea territory defense exercise.”

We have dedicated an entire article to the major military drills conducted in August. As a result of the thaw in relations in the region, they were scaled down and renamed 19-2 Dong Maeng (which means alliance in English) at first, and afterwards, in response to a backlash from North Korea, they were called Combined Command Post Training.

If we are to believe the South Korean side, the exercises involved a computer simulation and no military maneuvers or equipment. They were aimed at assessing ROK’s ability to assume operational control of its forces during wartime. Potentially offensive parts, such as rehearsing operations to forcibly remove the DPRK leadership from power, were eliminated from the drills, and for the first time, a South Korean General (Park Han-ki) and not an American was the head of command.

The author has come across information that this time around, the main aim of the exercise was to train to “stabilize territories.” It is indeed a doable task for scaled down drills, but the issue is that the aforementioned stabilization operations are, in reality, to be conducted after unification and victory, i.e. when there is a need to quell resistance. Rehearsing counter-attacks was still part of the training too.

From 2 to 5 September, tactical drills were held in the vicinity of the cities of Uijeongbu, Yangju, Dongducheon and Pocheon in Gyeonggi Province. The exercise was aimed at testing the ability of military and police forces, and governmental bodies to repel an attack by a potentially hostile force, and to respond to possible terrorist attacks against key infrastructure facilities.

From 16 to 20 September, ROK’s armed forces joined multinational peacekeeping exercises held in Indonesia.  370 participants from 18 countries took part in the training exercise focused on, for instance, locating and disarming improvised explosive devices, ensuring site security and providing first aid using the latest tactical gear and military vehicles.

On 15 October 2019, a report, presented during the National Assembly inspection, stated that the Republic of Korea Marine Corps conducted 24 joint drills with the United States as part of the ROK-US Korean Marine Exchange Program (KMEP). This number is the highest it has been in the last three years. 13 of the exercises were conducted at the corps level while 11 others were staged with other types of troops. Next year, the plan is to hold 22 joint military drills. In addition, the scope of responsibilities of such forces is being expanded, and there is an increased emphasis on greater participation in foreign exercises, held in locations such as Thailand, the United States and Australia.

On 25 October, 2 American В-52 strategic bombers took off from Andersen Air Force Base in Guam and flew over the Sea of Japan where they conducted an operation (and also possibly in the South China Sea).  They were assisted in their mission by three KC-135 aerial refueling aircraft.

We would like to remind our readers that В-52 bombers are considered to be strategic weapons by the US military along with ballistic missiles and ballistic missile submarines. According to South Korean media outlets, if the opponent happens to be a fairly small nation, two B-52 aircraft are sufficient to cause enormous damage. However, in the opinion of ROK’s experts, the training may have been aimed at containing Russia and China.

From 28 October to 1 November, the 15th defensive military exercises were held in South Korea. 30 central government agencies, 245 local self-governing bodies, and 430 state institutions and organizations took part in the drills. During the various trainings (1,100 in total), the participants rehearsed actions to be taken during fires and other emergency situations in public places.

From 29 to 31 October, South Korean and Australian naval forces took part in their 6th joint training exercise, Haedoli Wallaby. The first drill was held in 2012. Six aircraft and six vessels, including the destroyer Choe Yeong, Frigate Jeonbuk and a submarine, were used by the ROK side.

From 4 to 15 November, South Korea’s naval forces, along with the Lee Sunsin submarine (with the displacement tonnage of 1,200 tons), participated in PACREACH 2019, a multilateral submarine rescue exercise, near Australia’s shores.

It is true that some of the drills are held for good reason. But in Pyongyang, events that are purely military in nature and are clearly aimed against the DPRK, as well as the sheer scale of such preparations, are viewed as a breach of the Pyongyang and Panmunjom declarations.

On 4 November, Uriminzokkiri (a North Korean propaganda website) published an article stating that South Korean armed forces staged military exercises and built up military capabilities with the aim of intimidating the DPRK. The report highlighted that the ROK had violated the inter-Korean declarations, and that in order to improve and develop the relationship between the two nations and, therefore, ensure lasting peace and stability, South Korea needed to stop engaging in hostile actions.

The pressure from North Korea must be hard to ignore. Still, the general belief is that although the ROK wishes to avoid flare-ups in tensions with the DPRK and is prepared to at least scale down military drills, the United States is opposed to making any such changes. In fact, Pentagon spokesman Dave Eastburn has said: “We don’t scale or conduct our exercises based off North Korea’s anger.”

However, let us examine the conflict and its timeline in more detail.   On 3 November, a spokesperson of ROK’s Ministry of National Defense announced that the parties involved were discussing this issue, but that no concrete decisions had been made, and there was even a chance they would be revoked.

On 5 November, citing Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Dave Eastburn, the Voice of America radio network reported that Vigilant Ace were to be held as planned, but the final decision regarding this issue would be made during the Republic of Korea (ROK)-United States (US) Security Consultative Meeting (SCM), scheduled for the middle of November.

On 6 November, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) published a statement made by Roving Ambassador of DPRK Foreign Ministry Kwon Jong Gun. The joint military exercises planned by Seoul and Washington were viewed in Pyongyang as “a declaration of confrontation with the DPRK.” It also said that such actions threw “a wet blanket over the spark of the DPRK-US dialogue,” and that North Korea could reconsider agreements reached previously.

An immediate response by Lieutenant Colonel Dave Eastburn followed. He said that the decision to stage ROK-US military exercises or not did not depend on views held in Pyongyang. Still, media outlets noted that the Pentagon spokesman refrained from mentioning names of any drills or their scale.

On the very same day (6 November), Spokesperson for ROK’s Ministry of National Defense Choi Hyun-soo told journalists that joint air force drills would take place a month earlier than usual, and that their scale would be reduced in a similar manner to the exercises conducted in 2018.

On 7 November, during a press briefing at the Pentagon, Navy Rear Adm. William D. Byrne Jr., the Vice Director of the Joint Staff, pointed out that South Korea and the United States would stage scaled-down joint air force drills at the end of November. The government official did not mention any specific quantities of troops or aircraft that would be involved, instead he said that the numbers would be lower than those used in Vigilant Ace drills prior to 2017. William D. Byrne Jr. also stated that both sides would keep the scale of the drills at such levels so as to ensure the armed forces of both nations remained combat-ready.

On 13 November, KCNA published a statement issued by a spokesperson of DPRK’s State Administration Council (SAC), which said that (upcoming and past) military exercises were the main reason for the spiraling tensions on the Korean Peninsula and in the region, and were “hostile to the DPRK.” It also made reference to the North’s deadline to reach a deal, which the United States, unfortunately, chose to ignore.

On 14 November, during his journey to Seoul by plane, US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told journalists that the scale of joint military exercises could be reviewed if such a move had a positive effect on diplomatic efforts aimed at resolving the Korean conflict. In addition, he said that Washington intended to make all of the decisions together with its partners in Seoul.

Mark Esper also mentioned that US Special Representative for North Korea Stephen E. Biegun had relayed an offer to restart the negotiations in December to the DPRK via a third country.

On the very same day, in response to the remark by the US Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Korea-Asia Pacific Peace Committee Kim Yong Chol stated that he would like to understand “it as the U.S. intention to drop out of the joint military drill or completely stop it,” and expressed hope that Mark Esper’s words “reflected the intention of President Trump.”

On 15 November, ROK’s Minister of National Defense Jeong Kyeong-doo and US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper agreed to ensure their nations’ combat readiness via bilateral as well as trilateral cooperation among the ROK, the USA and Japan with the aim of countering nuclear and missile threats posed by the DPRK. They attested to the above during a joint press conference held at the end of the 51st Republic of Korea -United States Security Consultative Meeting (SCM).

By and large, the author’s point of view is as follows. It is hard to say that Vigilant Ace exercises are defensive in nature, and, in the author’s opinion, they raise as much tension on the peninsula as do North Korea’s missile launches. Besides, from Pyongyang’s viewpoint, the DPRK has actually taken at least some irreversible measures in order to achieve dialogue, while Americans have done nothing more than move the dates and reduce the scale of military drills. And even if the US side views the scaling down of exercises and using new less aggressive names to refer to them as a significant concession, North Korea sees their cancellation as the only acceptable solution.

Hence, the author tends to think that with each passing military drill, the window of opportunity for dialogue gets smaller and smaller.

Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D, Chief Research Fellow of the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.

Please select digest to download: