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SEOUL – U.S. and South Korean military personnel will simulate and respond to an attack by North Korea in annual war games staged during yet-another sensitive time in inter-Korean relations.

Twice in the past week, North Korea publicly has called for the countries to cancel the 11-day Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise that starts Tuesday, suggesting it might scuttle recent progress made toward getting the two Koreas back to the bargaining table.

“Nothing is more shameless political artifice than showing such poor double-dealing tactics as making preparations for a war behind the scene, while paying lip-service to peace and dialogue,” the North said in what it called an open letter to the U.S. and South Korea.

The exercise will “only keep the evil cycle of mistrust and confrontation, and this is bound to lead to war,” North Korea wrote in the letter, which was posted on North Korea’s official news agency, KCNA.

U.S. Army Lt. Col. Gary Robinson, a coordinator of the exercise, said in response the exercise will not be provocative.

"They shouldn’t worry about this," Robinson said. "It’s an annual exercise, and several weeks ago the United Nations Command sent a letter to [North Korea] stating the nature of the exercise, the duration, and the time and dates.”

That said, Robinson explained the “storyline” for this year’s largely computer-based exercise will incorporate, “some of the North Korean provocations that have happened in the past (year), leading up to heightened tensions and possibly … going to a wartime situation.”

Last year, North Korea was blamed for the sinking of a South Korean warship and the shelling of a Yellow Sea island, incidents which killed 50 people.

“We are applying lessons learned out of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as those garnered by the (U.S.-South Korean) alliance’s recent experiences with North Korean provocations on the peninsula and past exercises,” U.S. Forces Korea commander Gen. James D. Thurman said in a news release.

As has often been the case in the decades since the end of Korean War hostilities in 1953, relations between the North and South literally seem to change by the day.

U.S. and North Korean representatives have in recent weeks had talks that could lay the groundwork for a resumption of meetings — aimed a nuclear disarmament — among the two Koreas and other nations.

Meanwhile, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, in a speech Monday marking his country’s Liberation Day holiday, called for an “age of peace and cooperation” on the Korean peninsula.

“To this end, it is incumbent for the two sides to build up mutual trust with responsible deeds and a sincere stance,” he said. “Nothing can be accomplished through provocations. The two sides should bring about peace based on mutual trust, pursuing common prosperity through bilateral cooperation.”

But, just last week, the South accused the North of firing artillery rounds in the vicinity of the disputed maritime border between the two countries in the Yellow Sea. The North denied the accusation, and openly mocked the South suggesting its military overreacted to the sounds of construction-related explosions north of the border.

Robinson said that while the U.S. and South Korea are not trying to start trouble through this year’s Ulchi Freedom Guardian, the exercise should send a message that, “our alliance with South Korea is strong and definitely has a deterrent effect on any kinds of provocations from the North Korean side.”

This is the second straight year the exercise will be led by a U.S. commander.

In 2008 and 2009, a South Korean commander led the Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise in preparation for the previously planned 2012 transfer of wartime operational control of U.N. troops in South Korea from the U.S. to the South.

However, in the wake of the March 26, 2010, sinking of the Cheonan, and widespread criticism of South Korea’s military leadership related to that incident, the U.S. once again took the lead in the summer exercise last year and the OPCON transfer was postponed until 2015.

“But, as we get closer to Strategic Alliance 2015, the Republic of Korea Joint Chiefs of Staff will begin to take a larger role and start leading exercises,” Robinson said. “As far as the plans are now, we’re looking at all the way through 2015 for the most part (it) being a U.S.-led (exercise).”

rabiroffj@pstripes.osd.mil

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