By Oh Seok-min
SEOUL, Jan. 21 (Yonhap) -- South Korea and the United States will modify their springtime combined exercises in order to support diplomatic efforts to denuclearize North Korea, the defense ministry said Tuesday.
Since the nuclear negotiating process began in 2018, the South and the U.S. have either scaled back or made other modifications to joint military drills in an effort to avoid provoking Pyongyang that has long denounced such maneuvers as a rehearsal for invasion.
"We've been smoothly preparing for planned combined drills," a senior ministry official said. "If diplomatic efforts are under way, we will conduct (the drills) within the bounds to be agreed upon between the South and the U.S."
The stance was part of the ministry's comprehensive policy plan for the new year, which Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo reported to President Moon Jae-in at the Gyeryongdae military headquarters in the South Chungcheong Province in the day.
In line with the policy, the two countries are expected to replace their usual large-scale springtime exercise, Key Resolve and Foal Eagle maneuvers, with a computer-simulated command post exercise (CPX), called Dong Maeng, just as they did last year.
"As for combined field trainings, regiment-level maneuvers will not be conducted jointly, but the two sides are scheduled to carry out exercises between their battalions and between their subordinate units 'normally,'" the official said, stressing that any adjustment "won't affect our combined defense posture."
The second and the last command post exercise for 2020, planned for the second half, will involve the Full Operational Capability (FOC) test, which aims to assess the South Korean military's capabilities for the envisioned transfer of the wartime operational control (OPCON), according to the ministry.
Last year, the initial operational capability (IOC) found that South Korea is on course to meet conditions to regain OPCON from Washington. No specific deadline has been set, though many see the two sides eyeing 2022, or thereabouts, as the target date.
"South Korea and the U.S. are to complete drawing related strategic documents in the first half of this year to carry out the FOC test without a hitch," the official said.
In order to better counter persistent nuclear and missile threats from North Korea, the defense ministry vowed to continue to beef up its defense capabilities by maximizing state-of-the-art technologies and effectively administrating this year's budget that surpassed 50 trillion won (US$42.89 billion) for the first time ever.
With a goal to build trust with the North Korean defense authorities, the ministry vowed to strive further for the full implementation of the inter-Korean Comprehensive Military Agreement signed in September 2018.
Among those plans for this year include pushing for discussions with North Korea to remove guard posts inside the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), and allowing visitors to freely move around both sides of the inter-Korean border village of Panmunjom across the demarcation line.
In 2018, the two Koreas dismantled 10 front-line guard posts inside the DMZ, but no progress has been made since amid stalled denuclearization negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang. Currently, around 60 South Korean and 150 North Korean guard posts remain inside the buffer zone.
"We will be proactively do what we can do so as to implement those measures swiftly when conditions are set," the official said.
Following the briefing session, the military demonstrated unmanned combat and anti-drone systems that South Korea has developed as part of efforts to better brace for evolving future battlefields.
Yoon's outreach to Southeast Asia keeps China in the loop
Allies' defense chiefs highlight watertight alliance based on full extended deterrence against N. Korean threats
(News Focus) Police under fire for lax response to emergency calls hours before Itaewon crush
Police under fire for lax response to emergency calls hours before Itaewon crush
Role of administrative authorities questioned in Itaewon disaster