The head of the U.S. military’s Pacific Command (PACOM) will visit South Korea from Sunday, as the two allies kick off annual large-scale military exercise Monday amid soaring tensions with nuclear-armed North Korea.
PACOM commander Adm. Harry Harris will meet with South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Jeong Kyeong-doo, the U.S. military confirmed Saturday.
Harris is expected to discuss regional security issues, including the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system, in the meetings. He will also view the joint Ulchi Freedom Guardian (UFG) exercise during the trip that will run through Tuesday.
Harris’ trip follows closely on the heels of a visit by Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, who visited South Korea last Sunday and Monday.
The UFG exercise will be the first large-scale drill since North Korea conducted two successful tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles last month and unveiled a plan this month to lob missiles near the U.S. territory of Guam. The North later walked back that threat, saying that it would instead keep an eye on the situation.
But Pyongyang views the UFG exercise as a highly provocative rehearsal for invasion, and each year threatens a strong military response.
Harris has repeatedly said North Korea and its leader, Kim Jong Un, are PACOM’s biggest worries. And while he has suggested a nonmilitary solution remained the preferred way of reining in the North, Harris told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in April that “it’s critical that we’re guided by a strong sense of resolve, both privately and publicly, both diplomatically and militarily.
“All options are on the table,” he said at the time. “We want to bring Kim Jong Un to his senses, not to his knees.”
The United States has remained technically at war with North Korea since the 1950-53 Korean conflict ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty. Twenty-eight thousand U.S. troops are still stationed in South Korea.