The U.S. and South Korea began on Monday their biggest joint military exercise in about five years, after a hiatus on large-scale drills failed to entice North Korea’s Kim Jong Un to make concessions in disarmament talks.
The drills known as Ulchi Freedom Shield are expected to involve thousands of military personnel, and will run for two weeks. The U.S. and South Korea have said they are defensive in nature and will include exercises to coordinate forces in response to an invasion from North Korea.
An angry response is almost certain from Pyongyang, which for decades has assailed joint exercises as a prelude to invasion and nuclear war. Leader Kim Jong Un’s regime has turned up the heat in its rhetoric in the past few weeks, indicating it could get back to the provocations that were mostly put on hold as it battled a Covid outbreak first revealed in May, and which it said ended earlier this month.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said Ulchi Freedom Shield would include real-life scenarios including protecting facilities such as ports, airports, nuclear power plants and semiconductor factories. “Wars today are totally different from those in the past,” Yoon said in a cabinet meeting Monday.
Yoon, a conservative who took office in May, pledged to restore large-scale joint drills with the U.S. to bolster security against North Korea. His office said last month the two allies would return to practicing war scenarios in-person on land, at sea and in the air, replacing training over the past several years that used computerized command-and-control simulations.
The U.S., South Korea and Japan conducted a joint missile defense exercise off Hawaii earlier this month. The public display of unity from the two U.S. allies is an improvement from a deterioration of security ties in recent years over disputes stemming from Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea has sought for decades to leverage the prospect of disarmament talks to scale back the U.S.-South Korean military drills, something which former President Donald Trump agreed to during his summits with leader Kim Jong Un from 2018.
Kim and Trump met three times with no concrete results to roll back North Korea’s nuclear weapons arsenal, which only grew larger as the talks sputtered. Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of the leader, last month rejected a disarmament-for-aid deal offered by Yoon as “stupid” and dismissed the idea of engaging with Seoul.
Yoon’s predecessor, Moon Jae-in, was wary of angering Pyongyang and making public military maneuvers that could sour ties with China or his rapprochement with North Korea.
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The U.S., Japan and South Korea have all warned that North Korea is readying for its first nuclear test since 2017. Pyongyang is trying to build warheads small enough for tactical devices to hit American allies in Asia and increase the power of weapons that would be carried by intercontinental ballistic missiles to the U.S.
Any display of North Korea’s weapons would serve as a reminder of the security problems posed by the regime that have simmered as the attention of President Joe Biden’s administration focused on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Since most U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea for about a year, drills are typically the only time for most of them to do real-world, widespread training with their allies. Soldiers and equipment from bases in the US and Japan at times were integrated into the operations, while a US aircraft group has sailed offshore for many incarnations.
The U.S. still has about 28,500 troops in South Korea and military leaders on both sides have said drills are essential to prepare for any provocations by Pyongyang. North Korea positions large portions of its million-man military near the border drawn up when the cease fire took hold.
“We must maintain a tight security posture so as to keep peace on the Korean Peninsula,” Yoon said Monday.
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