Scaled-back military drills to begin next weekSouth Korea and the United States will kick off their combined military exercises next week, though the drills are set to be scaled back as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
According to a U.S. official cited in a Voice of America (VOA) report on Tuesday, the allies will conduct computerized command post exercises from Aug. 16 to 28.
The official said it would be “impossible” to conduct an assessment of South Korea’s full operational capability (FOC) to take over wartime operational control (Opcon) from the United States with this month’s drill, due to the limitations imposed by the coronavirus.
South Korean officials did not deny the report, noting that the matter of the FOC assessment was still under discussion with Washington. A military official in Seoul said a four-day crisis management staff training exercise in preparation for the drill began on Tuesday.
The inability to conduct the FOC assessment, a necessary step in the Opcon transfer process, creates a substantial hurdle for Seoul’s plan to take back control of wartime command of its military by the end of President Moon Jae-in’s term in 2022.
According to a South Korean Ministry of National Defense report to the National Assembly disclosed last month, the exercises were to be the first time the allies will apply the “future command structure,” a reference 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 (IOC) assessment conducted last year,” the report stated. “We are also preparing to further strengthen our combined defensive posture.”
On Seoul’s initiative, the allies were planning to complete the FOC assessment this year before moving on to an assessment of full mission capability (FMC) next year, the final step of the Opcon transfer.
The need to complete this process by 2022 was why South Korea pushed to conduct the drills, despite rising tensions with North Korea and a reported reluctance on the part of Washington due to Covid-19, which has hampered the movement of U.S. troops both in the United States and in U.S. military bases in Japan.
The pandemic earlier had forced the two countries to suspend their springtime joint drills scheduled for March.
Jonathan Hoffman, chief Pentagon spokesperson, said last week that there would be adjustments to the training as a result of Covid-19, though he added Washington was still looking forward to the Opcon transfer.
Though the scale of next week’s drills may be reduced, the duration of the exercises themselves has been extended by two or three days more than what was initially planned, according to the military official in Seoul. This is so that the drills can be staggered in order to ensure each exercise involved fewer personnel, and because most of the nighttime drills have been changed to be held during the day.
As to the possibility the FOC assessment may be unfeasible in the short term, South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo acknowledged at a parliamentary hearing last week that it may be “needed to accept inevitable delays depending on circumstances” and that if necessary, “changes to the plan must be made.”
BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [firstname.lastname@example.org]
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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