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South Korea worried US budget battle will affect joint training

SEOUL — South Korean military officials say they are concerned the U.S. sequester will lead to a reduction in the number of joint exercises, a move that could hurt both forces’ ability to respond to possible North Korean aggression.

South Korean officials are also worried the U.S. will decrease the number of troops taking part in exercises, according to an official with the Ministry of National Defense, speaking on customary condition of anonymity. The official said U.S. military leaders have not discussed with their South Korean counterparts the possible effects of sequestration or possible civilian furloughs on U.S. Forces Korea.

USFK spokesperson Jennifer Buschick said Friday that there are no plans to scale back the three largest annual joint drills — the spring Foal Eagle and Key Resolve drills, and Ulchi Freedom Guardian, a largely computer-based exercise held in late summer.

The fate of the many other smaller exercises held throughout the year was unclear.

When asked whether USFK might scale back other drills, Buschick referred to a USFK statement issued earlier this week:

“Our top priority is to ensure forces in Korea are properly equipped and ready.  We will continue to execute all necessary training and exercise participation to maintain the highest level of combat readiness in order to deter aggression on the Korean peninsula.   

“We will assess the impact of sequestration on our planned training and exercises throughout the Asia-Pacific region while also being fiscally responsible and leveraging innovative ways and technology to meet mission requirements.”

The need for such exercises became even more evident this week as North Korean officials declared the isolationist country will no longer honor the armistice that ended the conflict during the Korean War.

While the North regularly threatens to respond with force to joint U.S.-South Korean drills, it has recently increased the fervor of its rhetoric, promising to carry out “a strike of justice at any target anytime as it pleases without limit.”

Pyongyang also conducted a nuclear test on Feb. 12 and launched a rocket in December in the face of widespread condemnation from the international community.

On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council levied new sanctions against Pyongyang, which prompted the North to declare Friday that it would cut off a North-South hotline and nullify all nonaggression pacts with the South.

South Korea and the U.S. hold a number of war games of varying sizes throughout the year.

About 13,500 U.S. troops are participating in the Foal Eagle exercise March 1-April 30, or Key Resolve, which begins Monday and ends March 21.

For the first time, Key Resolve will be led by South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff and not the U.S.-led Combined Forces Command, providing a dry run for the planned U.S. handover of wartime control of allied forces. That transfer was supposed to take place in 2007 but has been delayed twice and is now on track to happen in 2015.  

U.S. Army Chief Gen. Raymond Odierno said last month that special efforts will be made to minimize the impact of the defense budget cuts in Afghanistan and South Korea.

The impact of sequestration on USFK military operations remains “undetermined,” though Buschick said the command’s “focus remains on readiness…that focus will not change.”

It was also unclear what impact, if any, the budget cuts will have on a massive relocation plan that will eventually consolidate the bulk of USFK troops at two regional hubs. One is Camp Humphreys, now being expanded to accommodate the expected influx of troops and their families.

Buschick said the relocation project is continuing as planned, but “as we receive further guidance, we will assess the impact and then take appropriate mitigation measures.”

Reporter Jon Rabiroff contributed to this report.

Rowland.ashley@stripes.com

Chang.yookyong@stripes.com

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