TThe United States and South Korea began their biggest joint military drills in about five years on Monday after a suspension of large-scale exercises failed to entice North Korea’s Kim Jong Un to make concessions in disarmament talks.
The exercise, known as the Ulchi Freedom Shield, is expected to involve thousands of troops and will last for two weeks. The US and South Korea have said they are defensive in nature and will include exercises to coordinate forces in response to an invasion by North Korea.
An angry response is almost certain from Pyongyang, which for decades has attacked joint exercises as a prelude to invasion and nuclear war. Leader Kim Jong Un’s regime has stepped up its rhetoric over the past few weeks, indicating it may return to provocations that were largely shelved as it grappled with the Covid outbreak, first revealed in May and which it says has ended by -early this month.
President of South Korea Yoon Suk Yeol said Ulchi Freedom Shield will feature real-life scenarios, including protecting facilities such as ports, airports, nuclear power plants and semiconductor factories. “Wars today are completely different from those in the past,” Yun said at a cabinet meeting on Monday.
Yun, a conservative who took office in May, has pledged to resume large-scale joint exercises with the United States to bolster security against North Korea. His office said last month that the two allies would return to practicing military scenarios in person on land, at sea and in the air, replacing training over the past few years that used computerized command-and-control simulations.
The US, South Korea and Japan held a joint missile defense exercise off Hawaii earlier this month. The public show of unity by the two US allies is an improvement from the deterioration of security ties in recent years over disputes stemming from Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule over the Korean peninsula.
North Korea has for decades tried to use the prospect of disarmament talks to scale back US-South Korean military exercises, something former President Donald Trump agreed to during summits with leader Kim Jong Un from 2018
Kim and Trump have met three times without concrete results on ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons arsenal, which has only grown as talks have stalled. Kim Yo Jong, the leader’s powerful sister, last month dismissed a disarmament-for-aid deal proposed by Yun as “stupid” and rejected the idea of engaging with Seoul.
Yun’s predecessor, Moon Jae-in, was wary of angering Pyongyang and making public military maneuvers that could sour ties with China or its rapprochement with North Korea.
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The US, Japan and South Korea have warned that North Korea is preparing for its first nuclear test since 2017. Pyongyang is trying to build warheads small enough for tactical devices to strike America’s allies in Asia and increase the power of the weapons it will carry on intercontinental ballistic missiles toward the United States
Any display of weapons by North Korea would serve as a reminder of security issues set by the regime that simmered while the attention of President Joe Biden’s administration was focused on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Since most U.S. soldiers are stationed in South Korea for about a year, the drills are usually the only time most of them have extensive real-world training with their allies. Troops and equipment from bases in the US and Japan were sometimes integrated into operations, while a US aircraft group sailed to sea for many incarnations.
The US still has about 28,500 troops in South Korea, and military leaders from both countries have said the drills are essential to prepare for any provocations from Pyongyang. North Korea has positioned large parts of its million-strong army near the border drawn when the ceasefire took effect.
“We must maintain a strict security posture to maintain peace on the Korean Peninsula,” Yun said on Monday.
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