US & South Korea start unannounced aerial wargames as tensions rise following Pyongyang’s ballistic missile tests

Washington and Seoul have kicked off their latest joint exercises without any public announcement or naming the drills, according to military sources in South Korea, amid heightened tensions with perennial foe North Korea.

On Monday, aerial units from South Korea and the United States were deployed to take part in scaled-back wargames after North Korea fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile in mid-October, according to a military official in Seoul. 

The exercises, previously called Vigilant Ace, started without any official announcement and are seemingly unnamed. South Korean news agency Yonhap, citing an official, said the five-day exercise would mobilize some 100 aircraft from both sides, including F-15K and KF-16 jets from South Korea, and F-16s from the US. Yonhap’s source said that no US military assets would be deployed from the mainland this time. 

South Korea’s Air Force has refused to publicly elaborate on the maneuvers, noting that allied exercises are carried out in a “balanced manner” under the annual plan. “We cannot comment on the exercise as it is one that is not disclosed to the media,” an Air Force official told Yonhap News Agency. 

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This follows North Korea confirming in mid-October that it successfully trialed a new submarine-launched ballistic missile, noting the missile had “advanced control guidance technologies,” making it harder to follow. 

Sung Kim, the US envoy for North Korea, said the trials were “concerning and counterproductive,” and called on Kim’s government to accept the offer of talks.

Pyongyang has claimed its neighbor’s previous joint drills were rehearsals for the invasion of North Korea, and even cut inter-Korean hotlines in August as Seoul and Washington held regular summer training. North Korea accused its southern foe of “perfidious behavior.”

In previous years, the joint exercises have seen tens of thousands of troops, as well hundreds of fighter jets, bombers, and other warplanes. However, the drills were scaled back in 2017 to allow talks to take place with Pyongyang. Former US President Donald Trump famously met Kim Jong-un in Singapore, with Washington pushing for Pyongyang to drop its nuclear and missile programs in exchange for sanctions relief.

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