U.S.-Korea military drills appear to be toned-down

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U.S.-Korea military drills appear to be toned-down


President Moon Jae-in, second from left, shakes hands with Adm. Harry Harris, U.S. Pacific Command commander, at a change of command ceremony for Gen. Jeong Kyeong-doo, new chairman of South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, in the Ministry of National Defense. [YONHAP]

The militaries of South Korea and the United States are set to start their 10-day joint military exercises today despite the North’s protests, but to avoid further escalation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula, the annual war games appear to be comparatively low-key this year.

According to the Ministry of National Defense, the Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command will conduct the Ulchi-Freedom Guardian (UFG) exercise from today to Aug. 31. Using a loudspeaker at Panmunjom on the inter-Korean border, the Combined Forces Command informed the North on Friday about the exercise plan and purpose.

While South Korea will keep the number of troops participating in the exercise at 50,000, about the same as last year, the number of American forces will be significantly reduced. This year, 17,500 U.S. troops, including 3,000 overseas reinforcements, will participate, whereas last year, 25,000 American troops, including 2,500 overseas reinforcements, joined the drill.

It is yet unknown whether the United States will mobilize strategic assets, including B-1B bombers, for the drill. Earlier, Seoul and Washington reportedly had decided that the United States would send two nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, but that plan appears to have been scrapped. No announcement was made about the participation of nuclear-powered submarines.

This year’s exercise is taking place at an extremely sensitive time. Just last week, the North threatened to fire four intermediate-range ballistic missiles over Japan into waters near the U.S. territory of Guam. After U.S. President Donald Trump warned the military was “locked and loaded,” North Korean leader Kim Jong-un suspended the plan Tuesday.

The Rodong Sinmun, the mouthpiece of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, said Sunday that the joint drill will “add fuel to the fire.” Criticizing the Trump administration for discussing a “decapitation operation” to assassinate Kim, the North said the military drill is a reckless act that may drive the situation toward nuclear war.

The UFG exercise is meant to focus on the North’s rapidly advancing nuclear and missile capabilities. Operation Plan 5015, created by the South and the United States in 2015, is reportedly used in the exercise. The war plan includes preemptive strikes against the North’s nuclear and missile installations as well as the removal of the regime’s leadership.

The North has a track record of protesting the drills with armed provocations. Last year, the North fired a ballistic missile from a submarine in August and conducted its fifth nuclear test in September. In 2015, it launched artillery attacks across the western inter-Korean border in Yeoncheon, Gyeonggi. The South responded by firing dozens of shells toward the suspected source of the North’s projectiles. The South’s shelling across the border was the first such response in 42 years.

Seoul said how Pyongyang reacts to the military drill will decide the next course of action. “The decreased number of U.S. troops participating in the drill will be seen as a good gesture to the North,” Moon Chung-in, special presidential adviser on national security, told the JTBC.

A presidential aide also told the JoongAng Ilbo it is paying attention to the possibility that the toned-down drills may persuade Pyongyang to join talks to resolve the nuclear and missile crisis.

“Pyongyang and Washington may engage in talks, depending on whether the North stages a provocation,” he said. “After the UFG exercise, the United Nations General Assembly will take place in September. There will be a six-month window until the next military exercise takes place [in March].”

While the number of U.S. troops participating was reduced, top U.S. military leaders have visited Korea in time for the event, which seems intended to pressure the North not to stage an armed provocation. U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford visited Korea last week, and U.S. Pacific Command Commander Admiral Harry Harris arrived in Seoul Sunday.

While here to observe the joint military exercise, Harris also met with top Korean military leaders, including Defense Minister Song Young-moo and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Jeong Kyeong-doo.

Commander of U.S. Strategic Command John Hyten also came to Seoul on Sunday, marking the first time since 2015 that the commander, in charge of creating U.S. nuclear war plans, is visiting Korea.

“Instead of reducing the overseas reinforcements, of which budgets were decided in advance and adjustments are more difficult, the number of U.S. Forces Korea participating in the drills were cut,” said Shin Won-sik, former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff operational headquarters. “This indicates that Washington considered a downscale of the exercise. If the number of participating troops is cut, the scope of the drills is likely to be reduced.”

Speculations were high that Seoul and Washington may postpone or downscale the exercise. The theory gained momentum last week after Stephen Bannon, then chief strategist of Trump, said in an interview that there was “no military solution” on the peninsula and that he might consider the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the South in return for a verifiable freeze of the North’s nuclear programs.

Trump, however, fired Bannon just two days after his remarks and Seoul and Washington went ahead with the long-scheduled exercise as planned.

Meanwhile, Moon attended the inauguration ceremony of the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. At the ceremony, Moon vowed to exercise all his power to strengthen the country’s capabilities against the North’s nuclear and missile threats. He also promised support to regain Korea’s wartime operational control.

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]
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