(ATTN: ADDS defense ministry's comments in paras 12, 15-17)
By Oh Seok-min
SEOUL, March 8 (Yonhap) -- South Korea and the United States on Monday kicked off a springtime combined military exercise in a scaled-back manner amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said.
The computer-simulated Combined Command Post Training (CCPT), set to continue until March 18, involves a "minimum level of troops" compared with previous ones given the coronavirus situation, and no outdoor drills will take place, according to the military.
"The training is to maintain our joint readiness posture and to support diplomatic efforts for the denuclearization of and peace on the Korean Peninsula," a military official said. "Tough antivirus measures will be in place throughout the training period to protect our forces."
Since 2019, their major combined exercises have not included outdoor drills amid peace efforts involving North Korea.
"The two sides have carried out outdoor maneuvers throughout the year, rather than done them intensively at specific periods of time," the official said.
Last year, Seoul and Washington decided to cancel their springtime exercise due to COVID-19 and held the summertime one in an adjusted manner.
The two sides also decided not to carry out a planned Full Operational Capability (FOC) test this time, dimming prospects further for Seoul's retaking of the wartime operational control (OPCON) of its troops from Washington at an early date.
The OPCON transition is not timed-based but conditions-based, but South Korea hopes to take it back within the term of the current Moon Jae-in administration that ends in May 2022.
The FOC test, a crucial step for the transition, was supposed to be held last year as part of the combined trainings, but they were unable to do so amid the COVID-19 situation.
Instead, this training will include a run-through of theater operations led by a future Combined Forces Command under the command of a four-star Korean general, according to the JCS.
"The rehearsal is also an important step to make real progress for the OPCON transition. We will continue to have close consultations with the U.S. on the matter," a defense ministry official said.
Defense ministry spokesperson Boo Seung-chan told a regular briefing that another delay in conducting the FOC test is not because of any differences between Seoul and Washington but "out of the comprehensive consideration of related factors, such as COVID-19, the readiness posture and peace efforts."
Seoul and Washington have stressed that the exercise is a regular one and is defensive in nature, but some say North Korea could use the drill as a pretext for provocations in the early months of the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden.
Pyongyang has long denounced such drills as a rehearsal for invasion and demanded a halt to the programs. In January, leader Kim Jong-un repeated the call, hinting at the possibility of better inter-Korean ties once such issues are resolved.
"North Korea has not shown any unusual movements up until now," Boo said.
The communist country has not made any response to the latest drill.
The JCS said it has been and will be closely monitoring the North, which is conducting wintertime drills.
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