The South Korean and US militaries are scaling back their annual exercises this month due to the COVID-19 pandemic and to support diplomacy focusing on North Korea’s nuclear program, officials said yesterday.
The allies decided to start the nine-day drills today after reviewing factors such as the status of the pandemic and diplomatic efforts to achieve denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula, the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement.
The drills are defensive in nature and are mostly tabletop exercises and simulations that would not involve field training, it said.
Last year, the allies canceled their springtime drills after some of their troops were infected with COVID-19. In the past few years, the countries have also suspended or downsized many of their regular training to create more space for the now-stalled US-led diplomatic drive to convince North Korea to denuclearize in return for economic and political incentives.
US-South Korea drills have been a major source of animosity on the peninsula, with North Korea viewing them as invasion rehearsals and responding with its own weapons tests.
Some experts have said that Kim might resume high-profile missile tests and raise tensions if he feels provoked by the upcoming drills, one of the two major military exercises between Seoul and Washington along with their summertime training.
A Joint Chiefs of Staff officer said that Seoul and Washington decided to “minimize” the number of troops participating in this month’s drills because of the pandemic.
The officer, who requested anonymity, citing a department rule, said that the allies have been staging field exercises throughout the year to maintain their readiness, rather than holding them intensively in certain periods, in an apparent reference to the spring and summer drills.
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