Annual US-South Korean military drills that infuriate North Korea are to begin on April 1, the allies said yesterday, but they are likely to be more low-key than past years ahead of two highly anticipated summits among the nations’ leaders.
This year’s drills were postponed during the Pyeongchang Olympics, which saw rare cooperative steps between the rival Koreas after months of confrontation over the North’s weapons programs. North Korea considers the exercises an invasion rehearsal and often conducts weapons tests in protest.
After post-Olympics talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, South Korean officials said Kim indicated he would accept the maneuvers.
Kim also offered to meet personally with US President Donald Trump to discuss giving up his nuclear weapons on unspecified terms, and Trump quickly agreed to meet Kim by the end of May. Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in are to meet separately late next month.
In a brief statement, the Pentagon said US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and his South Korean counterpart, Song Young-moo, agreed to go forward with the two sets of exercises, known as Foal Eagle and Key Resolve, “at a scale similar to” that of previous years.
North Korea been notified of the schedule and “as well as the defensive nature” of the exercises, the Pentagon said.
The South Korean Ministry of Defense released a near-identical statement.
A ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of department rules, said there are no immediate plans to bring in US strategic assets, such as aircraft carriers, nuclear-powered submarines or supersonic B-1B bombers during this spring’s training.
The US sent such assets during past drills when tensions ran high.
The exercises begin with Foal Eagle, a field training drill that will last about four weeks, compared with its typical two-month run. They are to be followed by Key Resolve, a computer-simulated command post exercise and is scheduled to start around the middle of next month for a usual two-week run, the South Korean official said.
“These are low-key drills. Now it’s a dialogue mode so they are trying to keep pace with that,” said Choi Kang, vice president of Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
Choi said North Korea might respond by issuing a relatively mild diatribe, but is likely to avoid conducting weapons tests that could disrupt its recent outreach to Washington and Seoul.
The timing and size of the drills are especially sensitive this year due to heightened worry over the North’s accelerated work last year on a nuclear-armed missile potentially capable of reaching the US.
This was followed, unexpectedly, by prospects for a diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis.
“To avoid compromising exercise objectives, specifics regarding the exercise scenarios will not be discussed,” Pentagon spokesman Marine Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Logan said.
He said the purpose is to enhance the ability of the US-South Korean alliance to defend South Korean territory.
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