SEOUL — At Suwon Air Base, having the bad guys win can be a good thing.

“If the friendly force always does well, they tend to not learn many lessons,” said Jude Shea, director of the Korea Battle Simulation Center, tasked with producing realistic and challenging wartime scenarios for U.S. and South Korean forces during exercises.

So if “North Korean troops” outwit their U.S. and South Korean counterparts during the annual Key Resolve exercise, they may get a pat on the back. The North Koreans are really a group of nearly 300 U.S. and South Koreans who, from their computer screens at Suwon — a small installation roughly halfway between Seoul and Pyeongtaek — assume the role of enemy forces.

In these ongoing “fight to win, free play” war games, their mission is to gain the upper hand in virtual battle — no matter which side you’re on.

Key Resolve is a joint computer-simulated exercise that runs March 11-21 and coincides with Foal Eagle, an annual live exercise involving air, naval and ground forces set for March 1-April 30.

This year’s Key Resolve is essentially a dry run for the planned U.S. handover of wartime operational control of allied forces to South Korea, scheduled for 2015. For the first time, Key Resolve is being led by South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, not the U.S.-led Combined Forces Command.

And in another first, the North Korean role players are operating out of a new $5.4 million simulation center in Suwon, constructed and funded by South Korea in advance of the transfer of operational wartime control.

“We are able to, within the computers, create a virtual battlefield in which all the forms of warfare are portrayed,” Shea said, speaking Friday at U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan’s Walker Center, simulation headquarters on the peninsula.

Shea said isolating the North Korean role players minimizes chances that information will be exchanged between sides and helps “to maintain the mysticism of the opposing force.”

At a time of increasingly heated threats from Pyongyang, the significance of the role-players may be even more crucial. North Korea conducted a rocket launch in December, followed it with a nuclear test last month, and has since claimed it may carry out “a strike of justice at any target any time it pleases without limit” against South Korean and U.S. forces.

Shea would not discuss specific scenarios being rehearsed during Key Resolve but said “obviously a lot of the design is done with the current situation in mind.”

Because little is known about reclusive North Korea’s military, U.S. and South Korean academic experts on North Korea advise OPFOR — military-speak for “opposing force” — and the group is headed by a retired South Korean Marine brigadier general.

“We assume that culturally he will have greater insights” than an American, Shea said.

The U.S. and South Korea split the approximately $3 million cost of simulation center operations during the exercise — a price tag that would run 20 to 30 times higher if real troops were acting out the scenarios, Shea said.

Plus, there are situations that live troops simply can’t act out in peacetime.

“We can do them in the simulation center because real life and real property is not at stake,” he said.

Key Resolve involves approximately 10,000 South Korean troops and 3,500 U.S. troops.

Stars and Stripes’ Yoo Kyong Chang contributed to this story.

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