US commanders say joint war games key to deterrence as N. Korea vows revenge
By KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 21, 2017
OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea – U.S. commanders defended joint war games with South Korea Tuesday as the North warned the United States will face “merciless retaliation” for going through with them.
The annual command-post exercise known as Ulchi Freedom Guardian began Monday and will run through Aug. 31 despite threats from North Korea, which considers such drills rehearsals for an invasion.
Gen. Vincent Brooks, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, said the exercises were important to make sure military options are ready for dealing with the North even as he and others expressed hope that diplomacy would work.
“We have the responsibility of providing military options to our national leaders, and exercises are a way of making sure that the option is a ready option; it’s a capable option,” he said during a press conference at Osan. “That’s what really underpins deterrence.”
“And so in our view we have to continue to exercise until we have a reason not to, and that reason has not yet emerged,” he added. “That may cause some noise from North Korea, and that’s what we routinely expect, but it doesn’t stop us in our resolve to be as ready as possible and leave the greatest number of options.”
This year’s exercises are taking place following recent missile tests that show North Korea has made rapid progress toward its goal of developing a nuclear-tipped missile that could reach the U.S. mainland.
Tensions have eased somewhat after the North backed off, at least temporarily, from a threat to fire missiles into the waters near Guam.
But the isolated nation issued a fresh threat on Tuesday, saying the exercises and U.S. military official visits were creating the circumstances for a “mock war” on the divided peninsula, according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency.
The U.S. and South Korea “will not be able to escape merciless retaliation and ruthless punishment since they ignored our warning and provoked us militarily,” KCNA said, citing an unidentified military official at the truce village of Panmunjom.
Ulchi Freedom Guardian, the second of two major rounds of exercises held each year, is mainly composed of computer simulations in preparation for an attack from the North.
About 17,500 U.S. servicemembers were participating in the drills, with approximately 3,000 coming from off the peninsula. That’s down from 25,000 last year, but U.S. officials said the number was not linked to the tensions.
Adm. Harry Harris, head of U.S. Pacific Command, also said the military needed to be prepared for all scenarios, although he said military action should be secondary to diplomacy.
“I believe strongly … that diplomacy is important and so the diplomatic lever has to be applied first,” he said. “And a diplomatic lever is stronger, more credible if it’s backed by military power.”
The peninsula is facing one of the most serious crisis since the 1950-53 Korean War ended as the North has made surprisingly fast progress toward its stated goal of developing a nuclear-tipped missile that could reach the U.S. mainland.
North Korea test-fired two intercontinental ballistic missiles last month, although some experts say it has yet to perfect important re-entry technology needed.
U.S. intelligence analysts also believe the North has miniaturized a nuclear weapon that could fit on the tip of a missile, according to a recent report in The Washington Post.
While it stepped up its rhetoric, the North hasn’t conducted another missile test in connection with UFG. It simultaneously test-fired four ballistic missiles during springtime drills.
Brooks, speaking against the backdrop of defensive Patriot missiles, said he welcomed the lull but would continue with efforts to enforce readiness with his South Korean allies.
“Having a pause in provocations is always a good thing that means there may be some success in the diplomatic efforts. But these decisions really have to be left up to Kim Jong Un,” he said.
Harris expressed confidence in U.S. missile-defense systems, including a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense battery that has been deployed to South Korea.
The U.S. has about 28,500 servicemembers stationed in South Korea, and that number usually rises during joint exercises.