Earlier this week we reported that in response to North Korea’s decision to suspend talks with the South and threatening to cancel the historic June 12 summit between Kim Jong-Un and Donald Trump, the US was considering withholding its B-52 bombers from joint exercises with South Korea taking place this week. The move, if confirmed, would demonstrate a rare capitulation by a president who has traditionally relished browbeating his opponents with his leverage from a position of force.
This morning, it was indeed confirmed that the North Korean leader had managed to outbluff his adversaries when the WSJ reported that a training exercise involving U.S. B-52 bombers and South Korean planes was scrapped earlier this week when as we reported, “the South Korean government expressed concerns that it could generate tensions before the summit meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.”
The move follows repeated assertions by the Trump administration that it is keeping up a campaign of maximum economic and military pressure until North Korea gives up its nuclear-weapons programs and that the U.S. has not changed the scope of its exercises.
It is worth noting, however, it wasn’t Trump that “folded” in this case, but rather his South Korean colleague:
But the South Koreans asked not to participate in what was intended to be a three-nation air drill involving the U.S., South Korea and Japan, the U.S. officials said. The U.S., which has sought to maintain political solidarity with Seoul during a turbulent period of diplomacy with North Korea, has not commented publicly on the South Korean decision.
“The B-52s are currently executing their continuous bomber presence mission in the theater, which sometimes includes joint or allied interactions,” said an official at the U.S. Pacific Command, without providing further details.
North Korea has sent mixed messages on joint U.S. and South Korean training. After a meeting between Kim and Moon earlier this year, South Korean officials told the Trump administration that the North Korean leader understood the need for joint U.S. and South Korean exercises. But in recent days North Korea “complained emphatically” that major military exercises like Max Thunder have gone ahead, and on Thursday, Ri Son Gwon, a senior North Korean official, threatened to shelve inter-Korean talks because of the exercise.
Meanwhile, reflecting the recent changes in the regional balance of power, South Korea’s government has been of two minds about the deployment of U.S. bombers and submarines near the Korean Peninsula.
After North Korea conducted a series of missile and nuclear tests last year, South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo said at a Pentagon press conference in October that he and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis had agreed that U.S. “strategic assets” should be deployed on a rotating basis to South Korea.
But as South Korean President Moon Jae-in has tried to improve ties with North Korea, his government has been concerned about the timing of such deployments.
Mr. Moon’s administration also has been concerned about the visibility of annual U.S.-South Korea military exercises, and has played down arms purchases from the U.S. Earlier this year, it requested that the U.S. delay this year’s joint spring exercises, known as Foal Eagle and Key Resolve, until after the Winter Olympics. The U.S. agreed to the request, but the exercises went ahead later.
The initial plan for the three-nation air drill was for two U.S. B-52s to fly from Guam and participate in training with the Japanese and South Korean air forces, the U.S. officials said. Because of lingering tensions between Japan and South Korea, the U.S. bombers were to train separately with each nation’s air force before returning to base. The main purpose this time, however, was training, including enabling the South Korean Air Force to practice intercepting bombers. To avoid a diplomatic provocation with a summit coming up, the B-52s were to have made “minimal entry” into South Korean airspace, U.S. officials said. The training mission was dubbed Blue Lightning.
But the South Korean government was concerned about upsetting the atmosphere for the summit and told the U.S. it did not want to participate in the exercise with the bombers, the officials said. After Mr. Song met earlier this week with Gen. Vincent Brooks, the U.S. commander in Korea, the B-52 training mission was adjusted to avoid South Korean airspace and to involve only the Japanese, these officials said.
Neither the South Korean Defense Ministry nor the Pentagon have commented on Seoul’s decision to drop out of the training mission with the B-52s, which was supposed to take place at the same time as a separate air exercise in South Korea, dubbed Max Thunder.