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U.S. downplays live-fire exercise with S. Korea on N. Korean holiday

As smoke rises from a hillside after the exercise, Gyeonggi Gov. Kim Moon-soo tells media members, "The Korean people should feel assured that the strong alliance between the U.S. and South Korea will keep South Korea safe."

JON RABIROFF / S&S

By JON RABIROFF | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 17, 2010

RODRIGUEZ RANGE, South Korea — The U.S. and South Korean militaries on Thursday staged a large live-fire exercise 15 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone, but officials insisted the event was not meant as a warning to North Korea.

“There is not a message we are sending to any particular audience,” said Col. Thomas C. Graves, commander of the 2nd Infantry Division’s 1st Heavy Brigade Combat Team. “The message that comes out of this is the strength of the [U.S.-South Korean] alliance across the board.

“We are doing an integration at the combined arms level — at the tactical level — that probably isn’t seen anywhere else in the world. How the North reacts to this is certainly not something I can predict.”

The exercise came on the birthday of Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s founder and the father of current leader Kim Jong Il — and a day after the Korean Central News Agency reported the recent staging of a major military exercise in North Korea to mark the anniversary.

Kim Jong Il was pleased by that exercise, the agency reported, and how it showed his forces were prepared to “beat back any surprise attack of the enemy in time and defend the socialist country as firm as a rock.”

U.S. and South Korean military officials said Thursday’s exercise had been in the works for months, and Graves said that when he picked the date for the event, he had no idea of its significance in North Korea.

“I didn’t realize it was [Kim Il Sung’s] birthday until last night, when somebody happened to mention it to me,” he said. “It is truly a coincidence.”

U.S. and South Korean soldiers trained together for months in advance of the hourlong exercise, which featured such fighting assets as Bradley fighting vehicles and Black Hawk helicopters, as well as F-16 Falcons and A-10 Warthogs.

As a host of VIPs — including U.S. Forces Korea commander Gen. Walter Sharp — looked on from a nearby hilltop, the combined forces simulated a fight with North Korean forces clearly in mind.

Graves said the exercise replicated a battle against “a modern, heavy mechanized, armored force, which is not the threat you have in Iraq or Afghanistan at this time.”

Said division commander Maj. Gen. Michael S. Tucker: “The reality is, in combat, this would have been much more chaotic. The tempo would have been much faster … and much more kinetic. And, of course, the targets were not shooting back.”

But Tucker said he was “very satisfied” with the exercise.

“This takes an extraordinary amount of coordination, and working together and appreciating each other’s weapons systems so they can complement each other toward the military objectives,” he said.

“Many Korean people worry about the security of the Korean peninsula,” Gyeonggi Gov. Kim Moon-soo said through an interpreter. “With this exercise, the Korean people should feel assured that the strong alliance between the U.S. and South Korea will keep South Korea safe.”


Helicopters provide air support.
JON RABIROFF / S&S