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US says war games in S. Korea to include fewer troops than last year

U.S. and Republic of Korean Soldiers conduct operations in the Combined Joint Task Force-Elimination Headquarters during Ulchi-Freedom Guardian, Aug. 28, 2016, in Seoul.

RYAN DONALD/U.S. ARMY

By KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 18, 2017

SEOUL, South Korea — The Pentagon said Friday that U.S.-South Korean war games beginning next week will involve fewer American troops than last year.

The announcement came amid fears that the annual military drills could spark a new crisis with North Korea after leader Kim Jong Un put on hold a threat to fire missiles into the waters near Guam.

The command post exercise known as Ulchi Freedom Guardian will begin Monday and run through Aug. 31, the Pentagon said in a press release.

About 17,500 U.S. servicemembers will participate, with about 3,000 coming from other countries. That’s a sharp decrease from the 25,000 U.S. servicemembers the U.S. military said joined the drills last year.

Ulchi Freedom Guardian is held every year about this time even though it angers the North Koreans, who consider such exercises to be rehearsals for an invasion.

The United States and South Korea insist the drills are defensive in nature.

This year the games are taking place following a war of words between the North and President Donald Trump, which generated one of the most serious crises to face the divided peninsula.

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.

Tensions have eased since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced last week that he would hold off on the Guam plan, but the conditional tone of his statement raised fears the isolated communist state could still stage a provocation in connection with the exercises.

The Pentagon said the Americans will join their South Korean counterparts as well as government participants. It didn’t give a number for the South Korean side but typically that is in the tens of thousands.

“UFG is a computer-simulated defensive exercise designed to enhance readiness, protect the region and maintain stability on the Korean peninsula,” the statement said.

It said seven other countries that are part of the United Nations Command - Australia, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, New Zealand, the Netherlands and Britain -- will also participate.

In addition, a neutral supervisory commission will monitor the drills to ensure they are in compliance with the 1953 armistice agreement that ended the three-year Korean War in lieu of a peace treaty.

The statement ended with the boilerplate language that the exercises “also highlight the longstanding military partnership, commitment and enduring friendship between the two nations.”

Last year, U.S. Forces Korea announced the start of the exercise and said 25,000 total servicemembers would participate, with about 2,500 coming from off the peninsula.

The two Koreas remain technically at war after they were unable to reach a peace treaty but settled for a truce to end the fighting in 1953.

The United States maintains about 28,500 servicemembers in South Korea, with that number often rising during the exercises.

gamel.kim@stripes.com
Twitter: @kimgamel

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