Members from the U.S. and South Korean militaries man the Hardened Theater Air Control Center at Osan Air Base, South Korea, during Ulchi Freedom Guardian drills in 2015. Portions of the image were blurred for security concerns.

Members from the U.S. and South Korean militaries man the Hardened Theater Air Control Center at Osan Air Base, South Korea, during Ulchi Freedom Guardian drills in 2015. Portions of the image were blurred for security concerns. (Courtesy of the U.S. Air Force)

SEOUL, South Korea — Tents have gone up and rows of computers are in place as the United States and South Korea gear up to begin joint war games Monday despite the growing nuclear threat from the North.

The command-post exercise known as Ulchi Freedom Guardian takes place every year about this time and always infuriates Pyongyang, which considers such drills rehearsals for an invasion.

This year, though, the games are taking place under a looming threat by North Korea to fire missiles into the waters near Guam. President Donald Trump also has warned he’ll unleash “fire and fury” on the communist state if it doesn’t curb its threatening behavior.

These also will be the first major exercises since North Korea test-fired two intercontinental ballistic missiles last month, a major advance in its march toward developing a nuclear-tipped missile that could reach the U.S. mainland.

The drills will run through Aug. 31 and involve 17,500 U.S. servicemembers, the Pentagon said Friday. That’s a sharp decrease from the 25,000 who participated last year and the lowest number in at least five years.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis rejected any link between the numbers and current events, saying it reflected a need for fewer personnel.

He said the exercise has been planned months in advance and the focus will be integration operations, according to Reuters.

“The numbers are by design to achieve the exercise objectives and you always pick what you want to emphasize,” he told reporters while traveling to Jordan. “Right now there is a heavy emphasis on command post operations, so the integration of all the different efforts.”

But some analysts suggested it could be another step toward de-escalating tensions that skyrocketed as North Korea and Trump lobbed threats at each other in a war of words.

“I do think the shift toward a smaller exercise scale (albeit modest) reflects a desire to avoid giving North Korea an easy excuse for its own missile or nuclear test,” James Schoff, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in an email.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said last week that he’ll hold off on the Guam plan for now but would “watch a little more the foolish and stupid conduct of the Yankees.”

Kim added that he’ll “make an important decision” if the “Yankees persist in their extremely dangerous, reckless actions on the Korean peninsula and in its vicinity,” according to state-run media.

That raised concern the North could conduct another provocation during the exercises, as it has done in the past.

“They view these exercises very negatively,” said Thomas Spoehr, a national defense expert at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.

“I doubt he’s going to shoot anything at Guam, but he may resort to his old tactics of sending missiles into the nearby sea,” Spoehr said, referring to Kim and his usual target area off the country’s east coast.

Bargaining chips

Some North Korea watchers have suggested that UFG and another round of exercises held in the spring could be postponed or scaled back as leverage to push Pyongyang back to the negotiating table.

Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week that the exercises were “not currently on the table as part of the negotiation at any level.”

“As long as the threat in North Korea exists, we need to maintain a high state of readiness to respond to that threat,” he added during remarks in Beijing.

The U.S. maintains about 28,500 servicemembers on a regular basis on the peninsula as the two Koreas remain technically at war after their 1950-53 conflict ended in an armistice instead of a peace treaty.

But the way in which the games are conducted and advertised could send an important signal to the North.

Experts said the military could simultaneously deploy U.S. supersonic bombers or aircraft carriers if it wanted to project strength, or show restraint to calm the situation.

“It will be interesting to see how high a profile these exercises get,” Schoff said. “Are we trying to publicize them and put some kind of military psychological pressure on [North Korea], or will we keep it low key and businesslike?”

“The latter would suggest that we think a low-key approach might encourage NK restraint and eventually open a door to dialogue,” he added in an email.

In 2015, North Korea told the U.S. it was willing to impose a temporary moratorium on nuclear tests in exchange for Washington canceling the joint military drills with Seoul.

China, North Korea’s only major ally, proposed a similar deal earlier this year in what has become termed as “freeze for a freeze.”

Spoehr, a retired Army lieutenant general, said the military exercises shouldn’t be used as a bargaining chip.

“You can reduce the number of soldiers deployed on the ground and you can reduce flights,” he said. “But every time you do that, you lessen the value of the actual training.”

‘It’s tedious’

Unlike field-training exercises in the spring known as Foal Eagle — which typically include amphibious landings, missile defense and live-fire drills — Ulchi Freedom Guardian is relatively easy to keep low key.

Named for South Korean general Ulchi Manduk, the exercise is almost entirely composed of computer simulations that take place in bunkers and tents hidden from view.

“It’s tedious,” said retired Lt. Col. Steve Tharp, who has played a role in many of the drills over past decades of service.

“We’re in tunnels and bunkers in front of computer screens, and we’re going through those routines that we would be expected to do in wartime,” he told Stars and Stripes.

“The exercise is defensive in nature. We’ll get different types of scenarios where we’re trying to get to the off ramp beforehand, and it’s usually a reaction to an attack,” he said.

Tharp, 61, of Jefferson City, Mo., most recently was involved as a member of USFK’s public affairs office at Yongsan Garrison in Seoul. He remembers the first time he participated as a sergeant in the 2nd Infantry Division in 1980, when the drills were known as Ulchi Focus Lens and there were no computers. Instead, they drafted charts on paper.

“It was all done by hand. We got reports in by radio and field phone,” he said.

The Pentagon stressed the exercise is defensive and “designed to enhance readiness, protect the region and maintain stability on the Korean peninsula.”

“There will be approximately 17,500 total U.S. servicemembers participating, with approximately 3,000 coming from off-peninsula,” it added.

They’ll join about 50,000 South Korean troops, according to media reports.

Last year, USFK said 25,000 U.S. servicemembers participated, with about 2,500 coming from other countries. There were about 30,000 U.S. servicemembers involved in the exercises from 2012-15, according to past statements.

Seven other countries will participate as part of United Nations Command, and a neutral supervisory commission will monitor the exercise to ensure it’s in compliance with the 1953 armistice agreement, officials say.

The United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission informs North Korea’s army of the dates via its mission in the truce village of Panmunjom, in the heavily fortified buffer zone that divides the peninsula. Twitter: @kimgamel

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