(ATTN: ADDS more remarks in last 3 paras)
By Oh Seok-min
SEOUL, Jan. 15 (Yonhap) -- Combined military exercises between South Korea and the United States conducted last year did not shrink either in number or strength, compared with previous years, even though some were modified to back diplomatic efforts with North Korea, Seoul's defense minister said Wednesday.
Jeong Kyeong-doo made the remarks in a congratulatory message at the two-day conference that began in Seoul on the day. The forum, under the subject of peace on the Korean Peninsula, is co-organized by the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy and the U.S.' Brookings Institution.
"Just as United States Forces Korea Commander Gen. Robert Abrams mentioned previously, the number and the strength of the Korea-U.S. combined exercises have never been decreased. In terms of battalion-level drills, more than 100 rounds of exercises were staged throughout last year, which is a larger number (than before)," Jeong said.
In order to militarily support their governments' efforts for diplomacy with North Korea, however, the allies have carried out such drills in an adjusted fashion based upon their advanced weapons system and fresh operational concepts, the defense minister noted.
Citing an air exercise as an example, Jeong said the two sides "are capable of conducting joint missions in a perfect manner" even their service members are not at the same place at the same time thanks to advanced technologies.
Since the U.S. and North Korea began nuclear negotiations in 2018, Seoul and Washington have either canceled or scaled back some of their joint drills. In the latest such move, the two countries decided in November last year to put off their annual wintertime air exercises.
The North has long denounced the allies' joint drills as a rehearsal for invasion and has been pressuring South Korea and the U.S. to stop their joint military exercises.
Some critics and conservatives then have voiced concern over the possible weakening of interoperability and a combined posture between the allies, while North Korea continues to pose threats.
"Closely monitoring military movements in North Korea, the authorities of South Korea and the U.S. have worked closely on diverse options that can deter and respond to the North's provocations," the minister said, expressing confidence in the allies' defense capabilities and a readiness posture.
Last year, North Korea fired 25 projectiles, including short-range ballistic missiles and a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), during 13 rounds of weapons tests.
The communist country also carried out artillery firing drills on the western border island of Changrin in November in violation of the 2018 inter-Korean military pact and conducted rocket engine tests twice at the Dongchang-ri site the following month, which were believed to be part of its development of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs)
In a New Year's Day announcement, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un warned that the country will show off a "new strategic weapon" in the near future. He did not elaborate, but experts believe it could be an ICMB capable of carrying multiple warheads or an advanced type of SLBM.
"Our military will maintain a staunch defense posture based upon the staunch Korea-U.S. alliance, and create conditions for the practical implementation of the inter-Korean military agreement through which we ease inter-Korean military tensions and build trust," Jeong said.
Speaking about negotiations on renewing a cost-sharing deal for the upkeep of U.S. troops in South Korea, the minister said the two sides have "closely cooperated to find a win-win solution, and the deal will surely be concluded at a mutually acceptable level."
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