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Seoul cancels this year’s Ulchi defense drills

July 11,2018
South Korea is canceling its annual summertime Ulchi defense drills this year, which follows the suspension of the Freedom Guardian joint exercises with the United States last month.

This decision to cancel the Ulchi drills, which usually take place every August, was reached in a Cabinet meeting presided by Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon Tuesday to take into consideration the recent developments in inter-Korean relations and the current security situation.

Minister of National Defense Song Young-moo and Minister of the Interior and Safety Kim Boo-kyum announced the decision in a joint press briefing after the Cabinet meeting and added that, starting from next year, the Ulchi drills will be combined with the existing South Korean Taeguk command post exercise to form an exercise tentatively called the “Ulchi Taegeuk” aimed at countering terrorism and large-scale disasters along with military attacks.

This has fueled speculation that the annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercises, after being canceled this year May, will be abolished permanently.

The announcement came after Seoul and Washington suspended joint military drills that may provoke North Korea, such as the Freedom Guardian, a two-week computer-simulated drill designed to enhance the allies’ readiness to protect the South from North Korean aggression, amid the ongoing denuclearization negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington.

“In the Cabinet meeting today, the government decided to temporarily suspend this year’s Ulchi drills, taking into consideration various security circumstances including recently developed South-North relations and the policy to suspend the South Korea-U.S. Freedom Guardian exercises held every year in August,” said Interior Minister Kim.

Kim added, “The Ulchi Taeguk exercise to be implemented from next year will not only prepare against attack from external forces, but apply a comprehensive security approach including response to terrorism and large-scale disasters, and will be developed into a joint drill model involving the military, government and civilians.”

The Defense Ministry decided to hold the Taeguk drills, a computer-simulated theater-level command post exercise held independently by the Korean Army, initially planned for June, in October because of the suspension of the Freedom Guardian exercises, according to Song.

The Ulchi exercise was launched in 1969 following a raid by North Korean commandos on then-President Park Chung Hee’s Blue House in Seoul on Jan. 21, 1968, and practices crisis management capabilities and warfare preparedness.

Some 480,000 officials from 4,000 government offices and public institutions nationwide have participated in the annual exercise.

Since 2008, the Ulchi drills have run in tandem with the joint South-U.S. Freedom Guardian and were known as the Ulchi-Freedom Guardian (UFG) exercises.

“Our Army plans to hold independent drills throughout the year as planned and decide on joint South Korea-U.S. drills through close consultations with the United States,” said Defense Minister Song, “and maintain a firm defense posture at all times.”

U.S. President Donald Trump, in a press conference immediately after his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore on June 12, called the joint “war games” with South Korean troops because they are provocative, inappropriate and expensive. His remarks sparked speculation on how many drills would be scrapped.

Seoul and Washington on June 19 said they would halt the Freedom Guardian exercise. Last year, the UFG ran for 11 days from Aug. 21 and involved some 17,500 American service members, including 3,000 from off the peninsula, and 50,000 South Korean troops.

Such large-scale joint drills take at least six months of preparation, so unless Seoul and Washington reach a decision to hold the UFG by February next year, it is likely that the exercise could be canceled altogether. North Korea has long protested the large-scale South-U.S. joint military exercises held in early spring and the summer.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]


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