The head of the U.S. military’s Pacific Command (PACOM) arrived in Seoul on Sunday, the South Korean Defense Ministry said as the two allies readied for the start of an annual large-scale military exercise Monday amid soaring tensions with nuclear-armed North Korea.
PACOM commander Adm. Harry Harris attended a change-of-command ceremony for new South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Jeong Kyeong-doo and later met with Defense Minister Song Young-moo to discuss responses to the North Korean threat, the Yonhap news agency quoted the Defense Ministry as saying.
Harris was scheduled to view the joint Ulchi Freedom Guardian (UFG) exercise during the trip that will run through Tuesday.
His 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.
On Sunday, the North warned that the United States will be “pouring gasoline on fire” by conducting the war game.
“The joint exercise is the most explicit expression of hostility against us, and no one can guarantee that the exercise won’t evolve into actual fighting,” the North’s official Rodong Sinmun daily said in an editorial.
“The Ulchi Freedom Guardian joint military exercises will be like pouring gasoline on fire and worsen the state of the peninsula,” it added.
Warning of an “uncontrollable phase of a nuclear war” on the Korean Peninsula, the paper added: “If the United States is lost in a fantasy that war on the peninsula is at somebody else’s doorstep far away from them across the Pacific, it is far more mistaken than ever.”
Harris has repeatedly said that 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.