Seoul, Washington to modify springtime drills

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Seoul, Washington to modify springtime drills

South Korea and the United States will modify their springtime combined exercises in order to support diplomatic efforts to denuclearize North Korea, the Ministry of National Defense said Tuesday.

Since the nuclear negotiating process began in 2018, the South and the United States have either scaled back or made other modifications to joint military drills in an effort to avoid provoking Pyongyang that has long denounced such maneuvers as a rehearsal for invasion.

“We’ve been smoothly preparing for planned combined drills,” a senior ministry official said. “If diplomatic efforts are underway, we will conduct [the drills] within the bounds to be agreed upon between the South and the United States.”

The stance was part of the ministry’s comprehensive policy plan for the new year, which Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo reported to President Moon Jae-in earlier in the day.

The two countries are expected to replace their usual large-scale springtime exercise, Key Resolve and Foal Eagle maneuvers, with a computer-simulated command post exercise, called Dong Maeng, as they did last year.

“As for combined field trainings, regiment-level maneuvers will not be conducted jointly, but the two sides are scheduled to carry out exercises between their battalions and between their subordinate units ‘normally,’” the official said, stressing that any adjustment “won’t affect our combined defense posture.”

The second and the last command post exercise for 2020, planned for the second half, will involve the full operational capability (FOC) test, which aims to assess the South Korean military’s capabilities for the envisioned transfer of wartime operational control (Opcon), according to the ministry.

Last year, the initial operational capability found that South Korea is on course to meet conditions to regain Opcon from Washington. No specific deadline has been set, though many see the two sides eyeing 2022, or thereabouts, as the target date.

“South Korea and the United States are to complete drawing related strategic documents in the first half of this year to carry out the FOC test without a hitch,” the official said.

In order to better counter persistent nuclear and missile threats from North Korea, the Defense Ministry vowed to continue to beef up its defense capabilities by maximizing state-of-the-art technologies and effectively administrating this year’s budget that surpassed 50 trillion won ($43 billion) for the first time ever.

With a goal to build trust with the North Korean defense authorities, the ministry vowed to strive further for the full implementation of the inter-Korean Comprehensive Military Agreement signed in September 2018.

Among those plans for this year include pushing for discussions with North Korea to remove guard posts inside the demilitarized zone and allowing visitors to freely move around both sides of the inter-Korean border village of Panmunjom across the demarcation line.

In 2018, the two Koreas dismantled 10 frontline guard posts inside the DMZ, but no progress has been made since amid stalled denuclearization negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.

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