US and South Korea hold largest joint military exercises in 5 years
The United States and South Korea began their largest combined military training in years on Monday as they strengthen their defensive posture against the growing North Korean nuclear threat.
The drills could draw an angry response from North Korea, which has ramped up its weapons testing activity to a record pace this year while repeatedly threatening clashes with Seoul and Washington amid a protracted diplomatic standoff.
The Ulchi Freedom Shield exercises will continue until September 1 in South Korea and will include field exercises involving aircraft, warships, tanks and potentially tens of thousands of troops.
While Washington and Seoul describe their drills as defensive, North Korea describes them as invasion rehearsals and has used them to justify its development of nuclear weapons and missiles.
Ulchi Freedom Shield, which began with a four-day South Korean civil defense training program led by government employees, would include drills simulating joint attacks, frontline reinforcements with weapons and fuel, and withdrawals of weapons of mass destruction.
Too “provocative” exercises: Trump
Allies will also train in drone attacks and other new developments in warfare shown during Russia’s war against Ukraine and practice joint military-civilian responses to attacks on seaports, airports and major industrial facilities such as semiconductor factories.
In recent years, the United States and South Korea had canceled some of their regular exercises and reduced others to computer simulations to create space for the Donald Trump administration’s diplomacy with the North Korea and later due to COVID-19 concerns.
Trump’s decision in early 2018 to call off the exercises – with the then-president deeming them too expensive and « provocative » for North Korea – was later criticized as an unnecessary concession to North Korean leader Kim Jong- one by former national security adviser John. Bolt.
In his book The room where it happenedBolton said he and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were surprised by Trump’s decision, which was made without consulting his cabinet.
Diplomatic efforts crumbled after the second meeting between Trump and Kim in early 2019. The Americans then rejected North Korean demands for a major lifting of crippling US-led sanctions in exchange for dismantling a aging nuclear complex, which would have represented a partial surrender of the North’s nuclear capabilities. Kim has since vowed to bolster his nuclear deterrent in the face of « gangster-like » US pressure.
The South Korean military did not reveal the number of South Korean and American soldiers participating in Ulchi Freedom Shield, but described the training as a message of strength. Seoul’s Defense Ministry said last week that Ulchi Freedom Shield is « normalizing » large-scale training and field exercises among allies to help strengthen their alliance.
Before training was suspended or reduced, the United States and South Korea held major joint exercises each spring and summer in South Korea.
Tens of thousands of soldiers participate
Spring drills included live-fire exercises involving a wide range of land, air, and sea assets and typically involved around 10,000 U.S. troops and 200,000 Koreans. Tens of thousands of Allied soldiers took part in the summer exercises, which consisted mainly of computer simulations to refine joint decision-making and planning, although the South Korean military has emphasized reviving field training this year.
The drills follow North Korea’s rejection last week of South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s ‘bold’ offer of economic benefits in exchange for denuclearization measures, accusing Seoul of recycling proposals that Pyongyang has long rejected .
Kim Yo Jong, the increasingly powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, called Yoon’s proposal stupid and stressed that the North had no intention of giving away an arsenal that her brother clearly sees as its best guarantee of survival.
She also ridiculed US-South Korean military capabilities to monitor North missile activity, insisting that the South misinterpreted the launch site of the North’s latest missile tests on Wednesday last week, hours before Yoon used a press conference to urge Pyongyang to return to diplomacy.
Kim Yo Jong’s statement came a week after she warned of ‘deadly’ retaliation against South Korea over a recent North Korean outbreak of COVID-19, which Pyongyang said was caused by leaflets and other objects thrown by southern activists. There are fears the threat portends a provocation that could include a nuclear or missile test or even border skirmishes, and that the North could try to escalate tensions around Allied drills.
Last week’s launches of two suspected cruise missiles extended a record pace in North Korea’s 2022 missile testing, which involved more than 30 ballistic launches, including the country’s first intercontinental ballistic missile demonstrations in nearly five years.