Korea, U.S. to hold springtime drill as planned: Defense chiefSouth Korea will stage annual springtime military exercises with the United States as planned, Defense Minister Suh Wook said, amid concerns the drills could give North Korea a pretext for provocations in the early months of U.S. President Joe Biden's administration.
Suh also said that South Korea is ready to discuss the exercise issue with the North via military channels to ease tensions. The minister stressed that the joint exercises with the United States are regular and purely defensive in nature.
"We will conduct a combined exercise in the first half of this year as a computer-simulated command post exercise without outdoor drills. It is a regular program and for defense purposes," Suh said during a New Year's press conference in Seoul Wednesday.
"Taking the Covid-19 situation and other related factors into account, we are closely discussing how to conduct it in detail with the U.S. side," he added.
North Korea has long denounced such exercises as a rehearsal for invasion and demanded an end to such drills. Earlier this month, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un repeated the call during a party congress.
Concerns have arisen, even from within South Korea's government, that the North could cite the upcoming exercises to undertake provocations, such as long-range missile tests, if it decides to do so to test the Biden administration.
Earlier this week, Unification Minister Lee In-young said he hopes the government will come up with a "wise and flexible solution" to the exercise issue to ensure that the situation will not lead to "serious military tensions."
The virus situation could affect the plan, but Suh said the situation this year appears to be different from the past, as the U.S. is administering Covid-19 vaccines to its service members, and the two sides have the experience of carrying out a combined exercise in an adjusted manner last year amid the pandemic.
Seoul and Washington usually hold major combined military exercises twice a year, along with smaller-scale ones throughout the year, and the springtime one is supposed to be held around March.
Since 2018, South Korea and the United States have either canceled or scaled back joint drills to retain diplomacy with North Korea. Last year, they "indefinitely postponed" the springtime program due to concerns over the new coronavirus, and the summertime exercise was held in a scaled back manner in August.
"The two Koreas are supposed to discuss any issues when a joint military committee is launched. I think that we could also discuss the [South Korea-U.S.] combined exercises with the North if there is any progress [in the committee formation]," Suh said.
South and North Korea agreed to create a committee decades ago, but no discussions have taken place.
The combined exercise also bears significance for Seoul's envisioned retaking of the wartime operational control of its troops from Washington, for which Suh vowed to "make progress before my term ends."
"We will strengthen consultations with the U.S. by having the Biden administration pay more attention to the issue," Suh said.