SEOUL: South Korean and US troops will conduct a scheduled joint training exercise next month but in a low-key manner, a senior presidential security adviser from South Korea has confirmed.
This is despite warnings by North Korea that the exercise may affect the resumption of denuclearization talks between Washington and Pyongyang.
“The nature of the exercise is not offensive … and is for strengthening the alliance,” said Choi Jong-kun, the secretary for peace planning to President Moon Jae-in, during the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado on Saturday.
Choi told reporters that the exercise would largely involve computer simulations and few troops in the field, an apparent move not to intimidate the North, which has routinely condemned military drills by South Korea and the US.
On July 16, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry accused the US of readying for war by holding military drills with South Korea, hinting at the possibility of resuming missile and nuclear tests.
“It is crystal clear that it is an actual drill and a rehearsal of war aimed at militarily occupying our Republic by surprise attack and rapid dispatch of large-scale reinforcements,” the ministry said. “With the US unilaterally reneging on its commitments, we are gradually losing our justifications to follow through on the commitments we made with the US as well.”
The exercise the North has criticized is the “Alliance 19-2” scheduled for Aug. 5 and Aug. 23. Previously, the US-South Korean joint exercise in the latter part of the year was called the Ulchi Freedom Guardian (UFG), a command post operation centered on computer-simulated war games in response to a scenario of all-out war with the North.
The UFG was announced to end in June last year following a summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Earlier this year, the defense authorities agreed to end their springtime large-scale exercise as part of efforts to help facilitate the denuclearization negotiations.
The nuclear disarmament talks, however, have been stalled since the Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi, Vietnam collapsed over the relief of sanctions against the communist regime. Trump and Kim had a surprise meeting on June 30 at the border village of Panmunjom within the demilitarized zone that divides the two Koreas and agreed to resume working-level denuclearization talks.
American diplomatic and military leaders have rejected the North’s objections to the joint drills.
“I think we’re doing exactly what President Trump promised Chairman Kim we would do with respect to those exercises,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an interview with the EWTN Catholic television network, a day after North Korea issued the statement about the exercise.
Adm. Phil Davidson, commander of US Indo-Pacific Command, said that North Korea had no reason to protest about military exercises on the Korean Peninsula.
“I can tell you my orders are to execute that exercise in April,” Davidson said during the Aspen forum on Thursday. “And I’ll say this about North Korean rhetoric: They have neither lowered nor raised their own exercise profile from before this negotiation … so they have little to complain about.”
Officials from Seoul’s Defense Ministry said that the Alliance19-2 is to proceed but the term “alliance” would be dropped in a move not to provoke the North. Instead, the exercise would be called a drill aimed at evaluating the South Korean military’s capability to take over wartime command authority from the US military.
“The exercise is aimed at testing and evaluating the initial operational capability of South Korean generals’ operational control of allied forces during wartime,” a Defense Ministry source told Arab News, asking not to be named.
To that end, a South Korean four-star general will oversee the joint exercise for the first time with the chief of US Forces Korea (USFK) serving as deputy commander.
About 28,500 American soldiers are stationed in South Korea, which remains technically at war with nuclear-armed North Korea.
Currently, the head of USFK is supposed to take operational control of both US and South Korean troops in the case of war. The USFK commander concurrently serves as chief of the Combined Forces Command (CFC) and the United Nations Command (UNC).
In October last year, the defense ministers of the two countries agreed to hand over more responsibility to South Korea for its national defense by 2022.
Both sides agreed to keep the CFC in place after the transfer of operational control, but the command will be under the leadership of a South Korean four-star general, with a US commander assuming a supporting role.