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Exercise proceeds as planned: South Korean Defense Ministry

U.S. President Donald Trump, center, and Shinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister, walk past an honor guard at Akasaka Palace in Tokyo, Japan, on Monday, Nov. 6, 2017. (Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg (Kiyoshi Ota/Xinhua/ZUMA Wire/TNS)

South Korea and the United States will press ahead with their ongoing combined air drills as planned, Seoul’s defense ministry said Wednesday, hours after North Korea canceled high-level cross-border talks in protest against the exercise.

Despite North Korea’s decision to postpone high-level talks with South Korea, just hours before they were set to take place, citing Seoul’s combined air drill with the US, the ongoing Max Thunder exercise will proceed as scheduled, the Defense Ministry said Wednesday.

About 100 aircraft from the allies’ air forces, including eight F-22 stealth fighter jets, are participating in the exercise that kicked off Friday, according to military officials. The annual drill is scheduled to continue until May 26.

“The exercise will proceed as planned, and regarding that, there are no differences between the South and US,” the Defense Ministry said, dismissing possibilities that there may be a suspension of the drills or a reduction in its scope.

The remarks came after Defense Minister Song Young-moo and Gen. Vincent Brooks, the commander of US Forces Korea, held an emergency meeting to discuss Pyongyang’s abrupt decision to postpone high-level inter-Korean talks slated for Wednesday.

In announcing the postponement, North Korea’s state-run Central News Agency denounced South Korea for undermining the spirit of an inter-Korean detente by working with the US to engage in a massive war rehearsal.

Given that Pyongyang made no criticism when the military exercise kicked off and Kim Jong-un reportedly said he would “understand” US-South Korea drills, analysts suspected there could be more significant reasons behind Pyongyang’s sudden change of mind.

“In terms of timing, North Korea’s behavior doesn’t quite add up. I think there is more behind the decision,” Kim Dae-yong, a military analyst at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy in Seoul, said.

When Max Thunder kicked off on May 11, there was no criticism from North Korea’s government and its state-run media. Rather, the reclusive regime announced the following day its detailed plans to shut down the Punggye-ri nuclear test site.

The deployment of strategic assets, such as F-22 stealth fighters, was determined well in advance, at least before US President Donald Trump agreed to hold the summit with Kim Jong-un, said Kim Dae-yong, who had been involved in Max Thunder as an observer.

An Air Force official told the Korea Herald that the US and South Korea held discussions about the scope of the exercise — such as air assets to be deployed — late last year when cross-border tensions were on the rise following North Korea’s ballistic missile launches.

Hosted by Air Force Operations Command and the US 7th Air Force, the annual exercise is considered to the the largest-ever in scale, with the participation of F-22s and South Korea’s F-15Ks and F-16s.

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© 2018 the Asia News Network (Hamburg, Germany)

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