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Controversy erupts over US suspension of bomber missions over peninsula

Controversy erupted Tuesday over a US general’s remarks that South Korea had asked the US Air Force to stop sending bombers over the Korean Peninsula in an effort to support ongoing diplomatic talks with North Korea.

According to Agence France-Presse, US Pacific Air Forces Commander Gen. Charles Brown told Pentagon reporters Monday that US bombers are no longer conducting flights over South Korea, as Seoul has asked for such missions to be halted. 

While the Ministry of National Defense declined to confirm whether bomber missions over the Korean Peninsula have been halted, the ministry stressed that there were prior consultations between Seoul and Washington.

“Such issues are not subject to one side’s unilateral decision, they require consultations between South Korea and the US,” said Defense Ministry spokesperson Choi Hyun-soo during a regular press briefing Tuesday.

The flights over the Korean Peninsula are part of the US’ continuous bomber presence aimed at supporting deterrence and regional security. According to military officials here, the US Air Force suspended the bomber flights after North Korea launched ballistic missiles in November last year.

US Pacific Air Forces Commander Gen. Charles Brown (left) and former Defense Minister Song Young-moo. Yonhap
US Pacific Air Forces Commander Gen. Charles Brown (left) and former Defense Minister Song Young-moo. Yonhap

Sending bombers and other US strategic assets has been a sticking point between Seoul and Washington, with the Moon Jae-in administration worrying that such maneuvers would dampen the mood for an inter-Korean detente.

South Korea has reportedly expressed concerns over a joint training exercise involving US B-52 bombers and South Korean fighter jets. What was intended to be a trilateral air drill was eventually scrapped in May.

“South Koreans asked not to participate in what was intended to be a three-nation air drill involving the US, South Korea and Japan,” the Wall Street Journal reported, citing anonymous US officials.

In light of changed security dynamics on the Korean Peninsula, Brown’s remarks about halting bomber missions appear to signal a change in the way the US will conduct joint exercises with South Korea.

Despite the halt in flights over the Korean Peninsula, Gen. Brown said the overall number of bomber flights has not changed. Instead, the Air Force has focused on bomber training missions with Japan and Australia, Brown added.

US Army Pacific Commander Gen. Robert Brown also said that joint exercises with South Korea are being conducted in a way different from before.

“Battalion and below exercises on the peninsula are fine. And that’s working very well at that small unit level. And then above that, we’re doing the higher-level exercises off the peninsula,” Brown said in an interview with Defense News.

The US and South Korea have scaled back or scrapped several joint military drills since the historic summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump in Singapore in June.

Last week, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said next year’s Foal Eagle exercise would be scaled back to avoid hurting diplomatic efforts with North Korea. Mattis said the exercise was being “reorganized a bit” to keep it from “being harmful to diplomacy.”

The Defense Ministry said South Korea and the US have yet to decide on the extent to which the exercise will be adjusted. Earlier this month, Defense Minister Jeong Kyung-doo said the plan for the upcoming exercise will be laid out no later than Dec. 1.

“Consultations are still underway between South Korea and the US,” spokesperson Choi said, denying a media report that working-level consultations for the upcoming exercises had been completed. “There are many types of processes involved in developing exercise plans.”