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US General: Diplomatic Success to Lead to Military ‘Discomfort’ on Korean Peninsula 

U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman General Joseph Dunford attends a meeting of the National Space Council in the East Room of the White House in Washington, June 18, 2018.

The top U.S. general says diplomatic efforts on the Korean Peninsula will lead to military “discomfort” in the coming months, as leaders try to strike a “very difficult balance” between military risk and political progress.

“The more successful we are in the diplomatic space, the more uncomfortable military leaders are going to be,” General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a group of reporters at a conference at the Navy League Building just outside Washington Friday.

The general’s comments came a week after the U.S. and South Korean militaries suspended another large-scale joint military exercise.

Give diplomacy a chance

Chief Pentagon spokesperson Dana White said last Friday the two militaries were suspending their joint air exercise, dubbed Vigilant Ace, in order to “give the diplomatic process every opportunity to continue.”

Before that, the United States and South Korea canceled annual Ulchi-Freedom Guardian exercises that had been scheduled for August.

Dunford told reporters the decision to suspend these exercises was informed by the fact that the general in command of the peninsula, General Vincent Brooks, is an experienced commander who has been in the Korean theater for three years. He added that staff turnover for the South Korean forces is typically not until around January.

“So we felt like we had sufficient staff training and exercises that had been conducted where we could look at tasks,” Dunford said. “You’ve either demonstrated proficiency to perform that task or you haven’t.”

FILE - U.S. Army General Robert Abrams, left, testifies during his nomination hearing to be commander of all U.S. forces in Korea, in Washington, Sept. 25, 2018.
FILE - U.S. Army General Robert Abrams, left, testifies during his nomination hearing to be commander of all U.S. forces in Korea, in Washington, Sept. 25, 2018.

Many smaller-scale military exercises have continued on the peninsula and across the region, but the U.S. general nominated to be the next commander of American forces in South Korea pointed out during his confirmation hearing last month that the Ulchi-Freedom Guardian suspension had caused “slight degradation” to military readiness on the peninsula.

When asked how many large-scale exercises could be skipped before a “significant decline in readiness,” Army Gen. Robert Abrams told Senate members it was “hard to judge.”

Officer rotation

As U.S. and South Korean leaders rotate out to make way for new leaders, their untested forces will need to find ways to practice successfully operating together.

Dunford said Friday it was incumbent to find ways “to mitigate training in a different way” in the absence of some of these major exercises on the peninsula.

He then added, “Where we cannot mitigate those impacts on readiness, (we must) communicate it to our political leadership so they can then say, ‘Is the risk that we’re occurring in the readiness of the force actually justified by the reason we’re taking that risk in the political space?’”

Dunford, Brooks and Admiral Philip Davidson, the commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, spent hours in talks Thursday.

Dunford said the leaders started defining what “mission-essential tasks” in which U.S. Forces Korea and Republic of Korea Armed Forces must demonstrate proficiency over the next several months.