Joint military exercise postponed

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Joint military exercise postponed

South Korea and the United States will postpone their springtime combined military exercise scheduled for March due to the novel coronavirus outbreak, announced Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) on Thursday.

In a joint press conference at the Ministry of National Defense, the JCS and the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) Combined Forces Command said the allies arrived at a decision to postpone a command post exercise as a result of the South Korean government’s elevation of its official alert level for the coronavirus to “red,” the highest in its four-tier system.

The allies had initially planned to conduct the command post exercise, a computer-simulated war game run from a single bunker and involving around 500 military officials, for two weeks starting from March 9.

“The JCS and USFK Combined Forces Command’s belief in the Korea-U.S. alliance remains ironclad and the decision we have made to postpone the combined exercises is not light,” said Col. Kim Jun-rak, spokesman for the JCS.

“We evaluate the alliance’s decision as having complied with and supported the South Korean government’s measures to prevent and weapon the spread of Covid-19.”

Covid-19 is the official name given by the World Health Organization to the novel coronavirus.

Gen. Park Han-ki, the chairman of the JCS, made the initial proposal to postpone the drills for the sake of the safety of all allied troops, Kim said, to which USFK Commander Gen. Robert Abrams expressed his agreement.

“In spite of the postponement decision, the Korea-U.S. alliance will maintain a firm united defensive posture and provide strong military deterrence against any threat in order to uphold the security of [South] Korea,” Kim added.

While the decision on the drill was framed as a “postponement,” military officials in Seoul said the announcement effectively meant the exercise has been canceled for this year.

“If the command post exercise for the first half of the year was to be rescheduled for another time, [the JCS] would have used the word ‘suspend’ rather than ‘postpone’ to explain its decision,” said one official.

The decision also represents an escalation of earlier considerations to scale down the exercises, as mentioned by U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper on Monday, likely as a result of a rapid growth in coronavirus cases throughout South Korea over this week.

As of Thursday, South Korea’s military reported 21 virus infections among its troops, 14 in the Army, two in the Navy and five in the Air Force.

The USFK on Wednesday also confirmed its first coronavirus infection involving a U.S. soldier at Camp Carroll, a garrison just a few kilometers away from Daegu, the epicenter of the virus outbreak in Korea.

The unprecedented decision to hold off on a joint drill as a result of a disease outbreak may cause a major setback in Seoul’s plans to regain wartime operational control (Opcon) of all allied forces in its territory from the United States within President Moon Jae-in’s term, which ends in 2022.

South Korea had originally planned to make March’s command post exercise a testing ground for its military’s full operational capability, the second tier of the assessment schedule for Opcon transfer.

The final step, a demonstration of Seoul’s full mission capability, was due for assessment in 2021.

According to military sources in Seoul, the allies may nonetheless attempt to follow through with the Opcon assessments on schedule by conducting separate military exercises using a datalink system or what is called C4I technology, an advanced command system used to communicate military information and relay command decisions during operations.

The latter system has been put to use in earlier joint military exercises like during the combined aerial drills known as Vigilant Ace in 2018 and 2019.

Independent of Opcon plans, however, the postponement of the drills also presents another challenge to plans to apply pressure on North Korea through the springtime drills this year amid an enduring limbo in denuclearization negotiations.

Though the global coronavirus outbreak has for now focused the North’s attention on quarantine efforts, the regime retains the potential to follow through on its threats from last year by testing weapons like an intercontinental ballistic missile.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK, LEE KEUN-PYUNG [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]

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