Seoul, South Korea — The United States and South Korea will begin next week their largest combined military training in years against an increasingly aggressive North Korea, which is mounting weapons tests and nuclear war threats against Seoul and Washington, the South Korean army announced on Tuesday.
The allied summer exercises, which will take place from August 22 to September 1 in South Korea under the name Ulchi Freedom Shield, will include field exercises involving aircraft, warships, tanks and potentially tens of thousands of soldiers.
The drills underscore Washington and Seoul’s commitment to restoring full-scale training after canceling some of their regular drills and reducing others to computer simulations in recent years to create space for diplomacy with Pyongyang and due to COVID-19 concerns.
The U.S. Department of Defense also said the U.S., South Korean, and Japanese navies participated in missile warning and ballistic missile search and tracking exercises off Hawaii from August 8-14, which , he said, were aimed at strengthening trilateral cooperation in the face of North Korean challenges.
While the United States and South Korea describe their exercises as defensive, Ulchi Freedom Shield will almost surely draw an angry reaction from North Korea, which describes all Allied training as invasion rehearsals and has used them to justify its development of nuclear weapons and missiles.
Before they were suspended or reduced, the United States and South Korea held major joint exercises each spring and summer in South Korea. Those in the spring had been highlighted by live-fire exercises involving a wide range of land, air and sea assets and typically involving around 10,000 American troops and 200,000 Koreans.
Tens of thousands of Allied soldiers had taken part in the summer exercises, which consisted mainly of computer simulations to refine joint decision-making and planning, although the South Korean military this time emphasized relaunch of large-scale field training.
Officials from Seoul’s Defense Ministry and its Joint Chiefs of Staff did not comment on the number of U.S. and South Korean troops who would participate in the Ulchi Freedom Guardian Shield.
The exercises, which will begin with a four-day South Korean civil defense training program led by government employees, will include drills simulating joint attacks, frontline reinforcements with weapons and fuel, and withdrawals of weapons of mass destruction.
Allies will also train in drone attacks and other new warfare developments shown during Russia’s war on Ukraine and practice joint military-civilian responses to attacks on seaports, airports and major industrial facilities such as semiconductor factories.
“The greatest significance of (Ulchi Freedom Shield) is that it standardizes combined South Korea-US exercises and field training, (contributing) to the reconstruction of the South Korea-US alliance. United and Combined Defense Posture,” Moon Hong-sik said, a Defense Ministry spokesperson told a press briefing.
Some experts say North Korea may be using the drills as an excuse to stir up tensions.
The North has previously warned of ‘deadly’ retaliation against South Korea over its COVID-19 outbreak, which it says was caused by anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets and other items being carried across the border by balloons launched by southern activists. There are fears that the North Korean threat, issued last week by the powerful sister of leader Kim Jong Un, portends a provocation, which could include a major nuclear or missile test or even border skirmishes.
In an interview with Associated Press Television last month, Choe Jin, deputy director of a think tank run by Pyongyang’s foreign ministry, said the United States and South Korea would face problems. “unprecedented” security if they did not abandon their campaign of hostile military pressure. against the North, including joint military exercises.
Kim Jun-rak, spokesman for the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the South Korean and US military were closely monitoring North Korean military activities and facilities.
Animosity has been building on the Korean peninsula since nuclear talks between the United States and North Korea were derailed in early 2019 over the trade for release from crippling US-led sanctions. against the North and measures to disarm the North.
Kim Jong Un has since said he is strengthening his nuclear deterrent in the face of “gangster-like” US pressure and has halted all cooperation with the South. Exploiting a division in the UN Security Council over Russia’s war on Ukraine, North Korea has ramped up weapons testing at a record pace this year, conducting more than 30 ballistic launches. They included the country’s first demonstrations of intercontinental ballistic missile technology since 2017 and other tests of tactical systems designed to be armed with small nuclear weapons on the battlefield.
Kim punctuated his trial spree with repeated warnings that the North would proactively use its nuclear weapons in conflicts with South Korea and the United States, which experts say points to an escalating nuclear doctrine. which could further worry its neighbors.
South Korea and US officials said North Korea was also preparing for its first nuclear test since September 2017, when it claimed to have developed a thermonuclear warhead to fit its ICBMs.