By Byun Duk-kun
WASHINGTON, Feb. 24 (Yonhap) -- Joint military exercises of South Korea and the United States are a key method of ensuring their combined defense readiness, a Pentagon official said Wednesday.
The official also said any changes to the joint exercises will be made "bilaterally" by the two countries.
"Military readiness is a top priority of the Secretary of Defense. Our combined military training events are a principal method of ensuring our combined Alliance readiness," the official told Yonhap News Agency in an email.
The remarks come after Suh Hoon, South Korea's national security adviser, said the countries' regular military drill, scheduled to be held next month, cannot but be reduced in size and scope due to the COVID-19 pandemic, adding there will also be no "actual maneuvering" of troops and equipment.
North Korea has long demanded the halt of the joint military drills, accusing them of being aimed at invading the North, while its leader Kim Jong-un said at a major party meeting last month that his country will tie inter-Korean dialogue and reconciliation to the joint exercises.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in later said Seoul may consult with Pyongyang on the issue if necessary.
The Pentagon official insisted the exercises pose no threat to North Korea and said any changes to them will be made by the U.S. and South Korea.
"These training events are non-provocative, defensive in nature, and are intended to maintain alliance readiness to ensure we are ready to "fight tonight." Any decision on the scope, scale, and timing of exercises will be made bilaterally with these factors in mind," said the official, who asked not to be identified.
Regarding the proposed transfer of the wartime operational control (OPCON) of South Korean troops, the Pentagon official reiterated that the transition must take place when all conditions are met.
"Wartime Operational Control will transition when the mutually-agreed upon conditions are fully met. A conditions-based wartime OPCON transition is not only what the United States and Republic of Korea mutually agreed to, it is also necessary to ensure the security of our military forces, peoples, and the region," he said.
Suh on Wednesday (Seoul time) said the Seoul government was working to take back the OPCON of South Korean troops from the U.S. at the earliest date possible.
The Moon Jae-in administration hopes to complete the OPCON transition before its five-year term ends in May 2022.
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