The U.S. and South Korea are scheduled to kick off a scaled back version of its annual springtime military drill starting Monday, Seoul said, as both countries remain in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic.
The joint drill — the first under U.S. President Joe Biden — will run for nine days and will be a “computer-simulated command post exercise,” South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement.
The “defensive” exercise will not include outdoor drills or maneuvers, which the JCS said have been held throughout the year, while the number of troops participating will also be “minimized” due to the pandemic.
“South Korea and the U.S. decided to conduct the springtime combined exercise from March 8 for nine days, after comprehensively taking into consideration the COVID-19 situation, the maintenance of the combat readiness posture, the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the establishment of peace,” the JCS said in a statement.
The exercises come as the Biden administration continues a policy review of its approach to nuclear-armed North Korea. Pyongyang routinely blasts the joint exercises on its doorstep as rehearsals for invasion.
Last year, The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted drills, forcing their cancellation in the spring and prompting a scaled-down version in the summer.
Restarting the exercises — even scaled-back versions — is expected to help the two allied nations better prepare for any possible contingency on the Korean Peninsula. Still, experts say the North could also use their resumption as an excuse for carrying out fresh provocations.
Andrew O’Neil, an expert on the Koreas and a professor at Australia’s Griffith University, said the odds of short-range ballistic missile launches “are higher than even.”
“Even the scaled down exercises are portrayed by Pyongyang as a provocation, so even if it’s just for domestic consumption, the regime will feel the need to do something to assert North Korea’s ‘sovereignty,’” O’Neil said.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump had pledged during a landmark meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to halt the exercises, which he called “war games,” as part of an effort to convince Pyongyang to relinquish its nuclear arsenal. The move, which surprised even Pentagon planners, also stoked concern in Seoul and Tokyo.
Nuclear negotiations between North Korea and the United States remain deadlocked despite Trump’s denuclearization entreaties and three meetings with Kim.
Instead, the North Korean leader has doubled down on retaining and refining his country’s “treasured sword,” vowing at a rare party congress in January to bolster its “nuclear war deterrent” and build more powerful military capabilities that increasingly put South Korea, Japan and even the continental U.S. in its crosshairs.
Biden has said he will take a different tack than his predecessor, putting allies at the center of a firm diplomatic approach.
“We will empower our diplomats to work to reduce the threat posed by North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile programs, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Republic of Korea and Japan,” Biden said, referring to South Korea by its official name, in his interim national security strategic guidance published Wednesday.
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