WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary James Mattis said Tuesday that joint military exercises with South Korea are on schedule to resume and that the suspension of some exercise this year was a one-time “good-faith measure.”
Meeting with Pentagon reporters in a rare formal press conference, Mattis said the Pentagon has “no plans to suspend any more” military exercises unless negotiations with North Korea suggest otherwise.
“We took the step to suspend several of the largest military exercise as a good faith measure,” Mattis told reporters. “We have no plans to suspend any more.”
In addition, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who joined Mattis at the press conference, said the U.S. and others are continuing air and sea patrols to ensure that items under sanctions are not delivered to North Korea.
“We’re also conducting air and maritime operations to disrupt ship-to-ship transfers of fuel in violation of U.N. sanctions against the DPRK, and we’re doing this in conjunction with allies and partners,” Dunford said.
In addition to Korea, press conference topics included the wars in Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen, the latest on changes to U.S. troop activities in Africa, the NATO alliance and health threats to military personnel in military housing.
“The world is awash in change,” Mattis said in his opening remarks.
Following his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore in June, President Donald Trump surprised the Pentagon when he said the U.S would not conduct “war games” that were “provocative” and “cost a fortune.”
Shortly after that, the Pentagon and South Korea announced the suspension of the Ulchi Freedom Guardian, which was scheduled to take place this month. Ulchi Freedom Guardian is a two-week military exercise that consists predominantly of computer-simulated defense drills
A few days later, the Pentagon added to the suspended list two Korean Marine Exchange Program training exercises scheduled to occur in the next three months.
In June, Mattis told reporters traveling with him to Asia that the Pentagon had indefinitely halted a variety of already scheduled military training exercises with South Korea to support the fledgling diplomatic efforts with North Korea.
On Tuesday, Mattis said decisions on next year’s exercises will be made in consultation with the State Department. His announcement came two days after Trump canceled Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s planned trip to North Korea.
As he often says, Mattis underscored that Pentagon actions are in coordination with Pompeo’s diplomatic effort. “It’s all riding on Secretary Pompeo’s shoulders,” he said, adding that smaller-scale exercises have taken place and will continue.
Regarding the war in Yemen, which the United Nations and other agencies have called the world’s worst humanitarian nightmare, Mattis said the U.S. has not seen or documented any “callous disregard” for innocent lives by the Saudi Arabia-led fight in Yemen.
A Saudi pilot recently took out a school bus full of children, just as a new U.N. report was issued suggesting the Saudi-led, U.S.-supported coalition could be guilty of rape, torture and other war crimes. The Aug. 9 attack kiiled 40 children and 11 adults
“The reality is that that battlefield is a humanitarian field, and we recognize the — the tragedy there,” Mattis said. “That’s why I emphasized that we are working with the U.N. special envoy to try and end this, to drive this to a U.N.-brokered negotiation”
Mattis said the Pentagon reviewed the support for the Arab coalition when he became defense secretary and “we determined that it was the right thing to do to support them in the defense of their own countries, but also to restore the rightful government there.
“We are constantly reviewing what support we are giving, yes,” Mattis said. “We also had an Army lieutenant general in Riyadh almost immediately following the early August tragedy to convey our concerns and ask for a swift and complete investigation.”
Mattis said the training and support given to Arab-coalition pilots is geared to keeping the killing of innocents “to the absolute minimum.” He said some pilots now do not bomb when they are concerned innocent civilian will be harmed. “We are not going to achieve perfection,” he said.
The report from the U.N.’s Human Rights Council said Yemen, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia may be responsible for war crimes during the almost four years of fighting the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
“We recognize every mistake like this is tragic in every way, but we have not seen any callous disregard by the people we’re working with,” Mattis said. “So we will continue to work with them.”
Regarding Turkey, Mattis expressed deep concern that Ankara’s planned purchase of a Russian missile defense system will be damaging to NATO.
Turkey plans to buy Russian-made S-400s. Mattis has been given 90 days to report to Congress on the state of the U.S-Turkey military relationship; Turkey faces U.S. sanctions and its purchase of F-35 fighter jets could be halted if Ankara does not drop plans to purchase the Russian system.
“Clearly, Turkey bringing a Russian anti-aircraft, anti-missile system into a NATO country — we cannot integrate that into NATO,” Mattis said. “Yes, it does concern us and we do not recommend that.”
Mattis said he had a “very candid” discussion this week with Turkey’s defense minister.