The US and South Korea began their largest coordinated military drill in years Monday to defend against North Korea’s nuclear threat.
North Korea has stepped up its missile tests this year and threatened war with Seoul and Washington amid a diplomatic impasse.
The Ulchi Freedom Shield exercises will continue through Sept. 1 in South Korea and may involve tens of thousands of troops.
North Korea perceives the exercises as invasion rehearsals and uses them to justify its nuclear and missile development.
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Ulchi Freedom Shield would reportedly feature exercises mimicking joint attacks, front-line reinforcements of guns and fuel, and elimination of WMD.
The allies will also exercise cooperative military-civilian responses to attacks on seaports, airports, and large industrial facilities like semiconductor manufacturing.
In past years, the US and South Korea canceled some drills and downgraded others to computer simulations to make room for Trump administration talks with North Korea and COVID-19 concerns.
Since the second Trump-Kim summit in early 2019, tensions have risen. The Americans rejected North Korean demands for a big relaxation of severe U.S.-led sanctions in exchange for destroying an old nuclear complex, which would have partially surrendered the North’s nuclear capability. Kim has promised to strengthen his nuclear deterrent in response to “gangster-like” U.S. pressure.
South Korea’s military hasn’t stated how many South Korean and U.S. troops are participating in Ulchi Freedom Shield, but has depicted exercise as a show of strength. Ulchi Freedom Shield “normalizes” large-scale training and field exercises with allies to enhance their alliance and defense posture against North Korea.
Before being postponed or scaled, the US and South Korea staged massive spring and summer exercises in South Korea.
Spring drills featured 10,000 American and 200,000 Korean troops in live-fire maneuvers including land, air, and marine capabilities. Tens of thousands of allied troops participated in the summertime drills, which mostly consisted of computer simulations to refine collective decision-making and planning.
North Korea dismissed South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s “audacious” proposal last week, accusing Seoul of rehashing plans Pyongyang has previously rejected.
Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, called Yoon’s suggestion dumb and said the North had no plans to give away an arsenal her brother sees as his only chance for survival.
She attacked Yoon for conducting military exercises with the U.S. and for allowing anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets and other “dirty waste” to be flown across the border by balloon.
She also derided U.S.-South Korean military capabilities for monitoring the North’s missile activity, alleging the South misinterpreted the launch site of the North’s latest missile launches last Wednesday, hours before Yoon urged Pyongyang to return to talks.
Kim Yo Jong’s statement came a week after she threatened “deadly” reprisal against South Korea for a recent COVID-19 outbreak, which Pyongyang claims was caused by southern activists. The threat may foretell a nuclear or missile test or border conflicts, and the North may try to heighten tensions surrounding allied training.
Choe Jin, deputy director of a North Korean Foreign Ministry think tank, said the US and South Korea would face “unprecedented” security issues if they don’t end their hostile military pressure campaign on North Korea, including joint drills.
Last week’s launches of two suspected cruise missiles continued North Korea’s record pace of missile testing in 2022, which has included more than 30 ballistic launches, including the country’s first intercontinental ballistic missile displays in nearly five years.
Experts say North Korea wants to enhance its arsenal and force the U.S. to recognise it as a nuclear state so it can negotiate economic and security concessions from a position of strength.
Kim Jong Un may soon boost the ante by conducting the North’s first nuclear test since September 2017, when it claimed to have built a thermonuclear ICBM missile.