Scaled-down joint drills with U.S. start Monday
Korea and the United States will kick off a scaled-down springtime military exercise Monday, which will continue for nine days, Seoul's Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said Sunday.
The computer-simulated command post exercise will not involve outdoor maneuvers, and the size of troops involved has been “minimized” compared to past years, said the JCS.
Seoul and Washington decided to hold the combined exercises, which run through March 18, “after comprehensively taking into consideration the Covid-19 situation, the maintenance of the combat readiness posture, the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the establishment of peace,” said the JCS in a statement.
It added that field training exercises (FTX) will be not be conducted over a specified period of time but “distributed throughout the year.”
Seoul and Washington will not be carrying out a full operational capability (FOC) test crucial for Korea’s envisioned regaining of wartime operational control (Opcon) from the United States.
The postponement of the FOC assessment has clouded the Moon Jae-in administration’s hopes of regaining Opcon from the United States by the end of the president’s five-year term in May 2022.
In 2018, Korea and the United States agreed to kick off a three-step assessment of the Korean military’s readiness to regain Opcon. The first stage, reviewing initial operational capability (IOC), was completed in 2019, and the second phase — the assessment of full operational capability (FOC) — was initially scheduled to be conducted last year. The third stage verification, the full mission capability (FMC), would have been the final step to enable the Opcon transfer next year.
However, the Covid-19 pandemic last year forced the allies to scale down their combined military exercises, leading to the postponement of the FOC assessment.
The FOC assessment is expected to take place in the second half of the year to coincide with the two countries’ annual summertime exercise usually held in August. However, if the coronavirus situation doesn’t improve, the FOC review may not be able to be carried out in the latter half of this year, and the transfer of Opcon will inevitably be delayed.
The JCS said Sunday that it would instead make substantial progress toward the transfer of wartime Opcon through theater of operations training commanded by a four-star general in preparation for the FOC review.
Seoul has pushed for the FOC to be carried out on schedule, as this would help put a timeline on when the transfer will take place, but Washington reportedly was more focused on reviewing the combined defense posture.
Analysts point out that the Joe Biden administration may have needed time to review its policy on the Opcon transfer as well.
The JCS stressed that the annual computer-simulated drill is a “defensive” command post exercise intended to “maintain a combined defense posture.”
It will also operate a safe training control task force to facilitate disease control measures during the training period, such as wearing a mask and disinfecting hands, so that the drills will not be disrupted by the Covid-19 situation.
Pyongyang has traditionally protested joint military drills between Seoul and Washington, but has not released any statement on the upcoming exercise. Large-scale exercises held by Seoul and Washington in the spring and summertime have often been periods of escalated provocations from Pyongyang, who sees the drills as war rehearsals.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un took part in a four-day workshop with regional Workers' Party secretaries through Saturday, reported the North’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) Sunday, to discuss ways to implement economic development and other party goals.
Pyongyang has suspended its nuclear tests and long-range missile launches since late 2017 but has also demanded Seoul and Washington put a halt to their joint military exercises. Amid denuclearization dialogue between North Korea and the United States launched in 2018, large-scale exercises were postponed or scaled down.
The Moon administration has pushed for strengthening inter-Korean cooperation and humanitarian aid to the North, though Pyongyang has been rebuffing Seoul’s overtures.
The Pentagon said that Washington is in “lockstep” with Seoul in response to a reporter’s question on whether the South Korean government is considering suspending combined exercises with the United States and prioritizes Pyongyang more than its security alliance.
U.S. Defense Department spokesman John Kirby said in a press briefing Friday, “We take our alliance commitment to the Republic of Korea very seriously, and that includes making sure there are ready military capabilities should they be needed, and [Gen. Robert Abrams, commander of the U.S. Forces Korea,] minds that very, very well, in lockstep with our South Korean allies.”
BY SARAH KIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]