POCHEON, South Korea — Almost 62 years ago to the day, North Korean troops and firepower rolled south and, in less than two months, pushed South Korean and U.S. forces down to the southern port city of Busan, then called Pusan.
On Friday, about 15 miles from the Demilitarized Zone, the militaries of South Korea and the U.S. staged what they called their largest joint, one-day, live-fire exercise since the war.
South Korean Ministry of Defense officials said the exercise was designed to demonstrate how the two militaries would respond if the North were to launch an attack similar to that of June 25, 1950, that started the Korean War.
Baek Seung Joo, a senior researcher with the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses’ Center for Security and Strategy in Seoul, said the show of force was a good idea, even if it antagonizes the North.
“Why should we walk on eggshells with our military exercises?” he said.
Pentagon spokesman Capt. John Kirby said earlier this week that Friday’s exercise was, “not a threat to anybody. It’s just a chance for the … South Korean military to improve their capabilities, and we’re looking forward to participating with them.”
North Korean officials suggested the exercise and other recent developments south of the DMZ were of great concern.
“(North Korea) is watching with high vigilance the U.S. preparations for war being expanded in a phased manner,” a spokesman for North Korea’s Foreign Ministry reportedly said this week. “It will increase its self-defense capabilities in every way to protect (the) sovereignty and dignity of the country and nation.”
In the Korean War, the U.S. and South Korean militaries were eventually able to reverse their fortunes, and hostilities were ultimately halted by armistice on July 27, 1953. Since a peace treaty was never signed, the two Koreas remain technically at war.
While South Korean and U.S. officials downplayed the significance of Friday’s exercise, it was staged with all the subtlety of a rock concert.
More than 2,000 U.S. and South Korean servicemembers, along with an array of fighter jets, attack helicopters and tanks, were put through their paces as dozens of media representatives and more than 4,000 spectators looked on from a nearby hillside.
South Korean Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik presided over the exercise and spoke briefly to the crowd afterward.
Lt. Col. Joe Scrocca, spokesman for the 2nd Infantry Division, said, aside from the manpower it provided, the U.S. was represented in the exercise by Apache helicopters, Bradley Fighting Vehicles and A-10 Warthogs.
“The experience combined training gives out troops is invaluable,” he said. “If deterrence fails and these troops have to defend Korea, they are going to have to do it together.
“So we train together to ensure we are ready to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our (South Korean) army partners if called upon,” Scrocca said. “We are a more lethal force together than we would ever be separate.”
During the hourlong exercise, an array of firepower from the land and air directed its fury at the far end of a valley where a large North Korean flag was used to mark enemy territory.
The view of the North Korean flag was eventually obscured by a wall of flames and smoke. “Victory” — and the end of the exercise — was marked by the unfurling of a large South Korean flag on a hill at the once “occupied” end of the valley. North Korea has historically taken great offense when its leaders, symbols or celebrations have been seemingly disrespected in any way by the South or its media, but the North did not give any immediate reaction to the use of its flag in the exercise.
In addition to the exercise in Pocheon, Friday also marked the end of a two-day, trilateral exercise in the waters south of the Korean peninsula involving the navies of the U.S., South Korea and Japan.
The U.S. and South Korean navies are scheduled to move on to conduct what they called “a routine carrier operation” in the Yellow Sea, west of the Korean peninsula, from Saturday through Monday.