US-S. Korean military drills to proceed despite N. Korean objections, officials say
By KIM GAMEL AND YOO KYONG CHANG | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 18, 2019
SEOUL, South Korea — The United States and South Korea will conduct joint military exercises as planned later this year, officials said Thursday, despite warnings by North Korea that the drills may affect the resumption of nuclear talks or prompt more nuclear or missile tests.
Exercises conducted on a regular basis by the allies have long infuriated the North, which considers them a rehearsal for an invasion.
President Donald Trump announced last year that he was “stopping the war games” following his historic first summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as diplomacy reversed months of tensions over the North’s nuclear program.
The military canceled major drills but replaced them with smaller-scale, mainly computer-simulated training conducted with a lower profile. The allies are preparing to hold the next one later this year as planned, South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense said Thursday, although it did not provide a date.
Then-acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyong-doo agreed in early June to cancel the autumn drills known as Ulchi Freedom Guardian and discussed a new combined command post exercise set for August to replace them, the Pentagon said at the time.
The August drill would be called 19-2 Dong Maeng, which means Alliance in Korean, in line with springtime drills that were renamed 19-1 Dong Maeng.
“We’re due to carry out the training in the second half of this year in a bid to verify basic operational capabilities for the transfer of wartime operational control,” ministry spokeswoman Choi Hyun-soo said during a regular press briefing.
She said a detailed schedule would be provided “at an appropriate time.”
Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Eastburn also was quoted as saying that Seoul and Washington are preparing to hold a joint exercise in the fall, according to South Korean media.
He was quoted as saying that the drill has been adjusted in cooperation with South Korea in order to maintain military readiness and support diplomatic efforts aimed at persuading the North to abandon its nuclear weapons.
North Korea’s state-run media have continued to criticize the drills despite the reduction in scope. On Tuesday, an unnamed foreign ministry spokesman said the next round of drills could affect the planned resumption of working-level negotiations agreed upon by Trump and Kim during a surprise meeting last month at the Joint Security Area in the Demilitarized Zone.
The ministry also accused the U.S. of reneging on commitments and hinted it may do the same, referring to Kim’s decision to suspend nuclear and long-range missile tests that raised fears of another war in 2016-17.
Officials in Seoul and Washington have said the upcoming exercises would be focused on testing the South’s readiness to assume military operational control in wartime, which is currently held by the commander of U.S. Forces Korea.
“Combined Joint Exercises are essential to maintaining the military readiness of U.S. forces in Korea,” the Defense Secretary nominee, Mark Esper, said in written responses to policy questions ahead of his testimony at a confirmation hearing Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“They ensure that the U.S. and (South Korean) militaries can respond together to any potential North Korean military threat,” he added.
Esper said the modernized exercise program adopted by Shanahan and Jeong is more suitable for the security situation on the divided peninsula because it focuses on military readiness and mission-essential tasks without large-scale exercises conducted in the past.
“U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) continues to implement this program successfully with its (South Korean) military counterparts, preserving military readiness while also sustaining an environment conducive to diplomatic efforts,” he wrote.
North Korea observers have noted that the communist state has a track record of saber rattling in an attempt to gain leverage ahead of planned talks.
“Ending the two allies’ joint military exercises permanently has long been a goal of North Korea,” said Jeung Youngtae, the director of the Institute of Military Studies at South Korea’s Dongyang University. “It is one of North Korea’s cards to play as it tries to lure the U.S. back to negotiations.”
Duyeon Kim, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said in a tweet that the North might conduct another short-range missile test as it did earlier this year to “make things difficult, but not enough to kill diplomacy.”