The U.S. and South Korea announced Tuesday that a toned-down version of annual joint military drills would begin April 1 amid a potentially monumental thaw in ties with nuclear-armed North Korea that could see the allies’ two leaders hold separate summits with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
The main Foal Eagle field exercise, which usually lasts two months, is scheduled to begin April 1 and last for a month, while the computer-simulated Key Resolve tabletop drills will be held for two weeks starting in mid-April, a South Korean military official was quoted as saying.
The joint drills had been postponed for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
The large-scale exercises have long been a source of tension between the two Koreas, with Pyongyang condemning them as rehearsals for invasion.
It was unclear if the U.S. would dispatch B-1B heavy bombers, nuclear-powered submarines or aircraft carriers to the drills, but media reports citing a South Korean Defense Ministry official said that there are no immediate plans to do so. The United States has sent such assets during past drills when tensions ran high.
The Pentagon said in a short statement earlier that U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and his South Korean counterpart, Song Young-moo, had agreed to go forward with the exercises “at a scale similar to that of previous years.”
It said North Korea’s military had been notified of the “defensive nature” of the drills.
Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Logan said approximately 12,200 U.S. troops and 10,000 South Korean military personnel would participate in the Key Resolve exercise, while some 11,500 U.S. troops and 290,000 South Korean forces would join the Foal Eagle drills.
Previous years’ exercises also reportedly involved special forces training for so-called decapitation strikes aimed at eradicating the North’s leadership.
Asked if that training would continue, Logan refused comment.
“To avoid compromising exercise objectives, specifics regarding the exercise scenarios will not be discussed,” he said.
However, he stressed that the exercises are “defense-oriented and there is no reason for North Korea to view them as a provocation.”
Logan also said that the exercises “are not conducted in response to any DPRK provocations or the current political situation on the peninsula.” DPRK is the acronym for the North’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
While there had been talk of suspending or severely truncating the drills, Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, said holding the drills “is the right thing to do, from the viewpoint of projecting … alliance unity.
“Not to do so would be giving the North Koreans an upfront concession,” Graham said.
This year’s exercises will come just weeks after U.S. President Donald Trump shocked both those inside and outside his administration on March 8, when he told visiting South Korean officials who had returned from talks with Kim in Pyongyang that he would be willing to accept Kim’s invitation to meet before the end of May.
This followed a similar invitation extended by Kim to South Korean President Moon Jae-in. That meeting is scheduled for next month at the truce village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas.
The South Korean officials had told Trump that Kim voiced a commitment to the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” and pledged to refrain from any further nuclear or missile tests while talks were ongoing. They also said that Kim “understands” that the joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises would continue this year.
Experts say the operational-military level of the U.S.-South Korean alliance is by far its strongest element and can be contrasted with periodic political tensions between Seoul and Washington.
“So, if you’re looking to send a message of unity and joint resolve to deal with North Korea as the transition to formal dialogue begins, what better way than holding joint exercises that are already scheduled?” said Andrew O’Neil, an expert on North Korea and a professor at Griffith University in Australia.
“More explicitly, maintaining the scheduled exercises further underscores the iron fist/velvet glove narrative that Trump and Moon have been keen to emphasize in their respective approaches to Pyongyang over the past year.”
Still, the timing and size of the exercises remain especially sensitive to Pyongyang.
Last year, in response to the drills, the North fired off four ballistic missiles close to Japan, in what it said was training for strikes on U.S. military bases in the country.
While it has not tested a missile or nuclear device this year, the North maintained a torrid pace of nuclear and ballistic-missile testing in 2017 — including the launch of two intermediate-range missiles over Japan. The isolated regime also conducted its most powerful nuclear blast to date in September, which the North claimed was of a thermonuclear weapon.
North Korea declared in late November, after the successful launch of it’s longest-range missile to date, that it had “realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force.”
Experts believe that missile, the Hwasong-15, is capable of striking most of the U.S.
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