Summertime military drills between Korea, U.S., are a go

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Summertime military drills between Korea, U.S., are a go

South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense on Tuesday said it will carry out combined military exercises with the United States this summer, despite concerns with the Covid-19 pandemic and deteriorating relations with North Korea.
 
In a report submitted to the National Assembly’s National Defense Committee, the ministry said it plans to push ahead with the drills in order to conduct an assessment of South Korea’s full operational capability (FOC) to take over wartime operational control (Opcon) from the United States.  
 
The report served as the first confirmation from Seoul that it intended to carry out the exercises, amid proposals to postpone or suspend the drills due to the coronavirus and for the sake of repairing ties with Pyongyang.  
 
The exercises will be the first time the allies will apply the “future command structure,” the ministry said, referring to a new system whereby a South Korean general will take the helm, with a U.S. commander serving in a deputy role.  
 
“We have prepared for the FOC assessment based on the experience and lessons from the initial operational capability assessment conducted last year,” the Defense Ministry report stated. “We are also preparing to further strengthen our combined defensive posture.”
 
The FOC test is a critical step — the last phase before the allies conduct a final assessment on Seoul’s full mission capability — to realize the Opcon transfer, which the allies hope to carry out in 2022 before the end of President Moon Jae-in’s term.  
 
The ministry said it was designing the exercises with the Covid-19 situation in mind, though few details were provided on when and how the drills would take place. One method the allies are likely to use is a computer-simulated command post exercise, which has been used in earlier drills.  
 
The coronavirus pandemic forced the two countries to suspend their springtime joint drills scheduled for March, though supporting diplomacy with the North may have also factored in the decision.
 
Yet increased military tensions with Pyongyang in recent months, combined with a closing timetable on the Opcon transfer, added pressure on the allies to carry out their August exercises regardless of the circumstances.  
 
The issue of the drills, however, was secondary to the criticism the Defense Ministry received Tuesday from lawmakers on the National Defense Committee, who criticized the military’s failure to detect infiltration by a North Korean defector who snuck past the border to escape to the North earlier this month.
 
The defector, a 24-year-old man who first came to the South three years ago, slipped through a military coastal border on Ganghwa Island, Incheon, and swam through a river crossing to return to North Korea earlier this month.
 
Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo admitted he had only learned about the escape on Sunday morning after receiving a phone call from the Blue House national security adviser. Gen. Park Han-ki, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also noted there had been a security breach owing to the failure of surveillance systems at the border.  
 
BY SHIM KYU-SEOK   [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]

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