(ATTN: RECASTS headline, paras 1-4 with completion; ADDS more comments, details in paras 8-9, 11, 15)
By Oh Seok-min
SEOUL, Aug. 20 (Yonhap) -- South Korea and the United States wrapped up their weekslong combined military exercises on Tuesday, raising hopes for a halt in a series of missile launches by North Korea and a possible resumption of nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang.
The North has strongly bristled at the Combined Command Post Training and Crisis Management Staff Training, ratcheting up tensions with six rounds of missile or projectile launches and bellicose rhetoric over about three weeks.
"We've wrapped up the training as scheduled, and all the training sessions proceeded without a hitch," a military officer said.
This year's exercise, which replaced their summertime Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise, involved computer simulations without the actual mobilization of troops or military equipment, which is part of the allies' reorganization of major exercises aimed at supporting peace efforts with North Korea.
But the training was based upon similar scenarios to previous ones and was composed of two parts just as the allies have done before: defending the country against invasion by North Korea and launching a counterattack in response.
"The focus of the exercise was to verify whether Seoul is on course to meet the conditions required for its retaking of operational control over its forces from Washington during wartime," a defense ministry official said, adding that the results of the initial operational capability (IOC) test will be discussed later this year.
For that test, the exercise was carried out under the envisioned platform of the future joint command, where a South Korean general commands the Combined Forces Command (CFC), with an American general taking the role of vice commander, according to the sources.
"All officials of South Korea's defense ministry also participated in the exercise to check and experience their future role after the OPCON transfer to Seoul," the official added. Previously, the exercise mainly involved South Korean service personnel from the CFC and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The two sides have agreed on a "conditions-based" OPCON transition. The conditions are the South's capability to lead the allies' combined defense mechanism, its capacity for initial responses to the North's nuclear and missile threats and a stable security environment on the peninsula and in the region.
No more major combine exercises are scheduled for this year between Seoul and Washington, except for small-scale ones between or among units, according to the military officer.
Apparently in consideration of North Korea, Seoul and Washington have maintained low-key stances regarding the exercise this time. Different from previous cases, they did not name the training, though it was supposed to be labeled "19-2 Dong Maeng," following a similar one launched in March under the name of the Dong Maeng exercise. Dong Maeng means alliance in English.
Well before the allies made the schedule official, however, North Korea issued strong warnings against it, while repeating claims that such a joint maneuver is nothing but a rehearsal for invasion into the North.
Since July 25, the communist country has carried out major weapons tests six times involving newly developed short-range ballistic missiles, with the latest one taking place on Friday. It also has intensified its verbal condemnation against Seoul, threatening to end inter-Korean dialogue.
Even on the final day of the combined exercise, the North's official newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, said in a commentary that the exercise is "an outright hostile act of invading us and a military provocation that cannot be tolerated," and warned that South Korea will pay a price.
In the midst of conducting such military actions earlier this month, however, the North Korean leader sent a letter to Trump and expressed a "small apology for testing the short-range missiles," Trump tweeted, adding that Kim told him that such saber-rattling would stop when the joint exercise ends.
Kim also expressed his will to resume talks with the U.S. on its nuclear programs "as soon as" the exercise is over, according to the U.S. president.
The negotiations on the North's nuclear weapons program have been stalled since the no-deal Hanoi summit in February. During their surprise meeting in the inter-Korean border village of Panmunjom at the end of June, Trump and Kim agreed to resume nuclear talks, and the U.S. has suggested working-level dialogue.
As a possible sign of the resumption, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun is set to arrive in Seoul on Tuesday for a three-day visit following a two-day trip to Japan, according to the State Department.
One month into outbreak, coronavirus shakes life in S. Korea
S. Korea still on alert despite slowing coronavirus outbreak
Moon hopes for spring summit with Trump, feasibility still a question
Fake news another hurdle in tackling coronavirus in S. Korea
S. Korea's decision for 'independent' naval ops in Hormuz Strait seeks delicate balance between U.S., Iran