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(LEAD) S. Korea, U.S. wrap up springtime combined exercise amid COVID-19, N.K. protest

All News 17:24 March 18, 2021

(ATTN: RECASTS headline, lead as exercise ends; ADDS more details in paras 3, 12-14)
By Oh Seok-min

SEOUL, March 18 (Yonhap) -- South Korea and the United States on Thursday wrapped up their nine-day springtime combined military exercise staged in a scaled-back manner due to the coronavirus pandemic and peace efforts with North Korea, officials said.

The computer-simulated Combined Command Post Training (CCPT), which began on March 8, involved a "minimum level" of troops compared with previous ones, and no outdoor drills took place, according to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).

"The exercise has been conducted without a hitch. To ensure the safety of our service members, we've enforced strict antivirus measures," a military official said.

On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said the exercise has been carried out "successfully," and Defense Minister Suh Wook shared the assessment during their meeting in Seoul, according to a defense ministry official in Seoul.

This file photo taken Feb. 27, 2020, shows the U.S. Forces Korea's Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province. (Yonhap)

Since 2019, their major combined exercises have not included outdoor drills amid peace efforts involving North Korea, and Seoul's defense ministry said that such outdoor maneuvers have been carried out throughout the year, rather than done intensively at a specific period of time.

Last year, Seoul and Washington decided to cancel their springtime exercise due to COVID-19 and held the summertime one in an adjusted manner.

Though Seoul and Washington said that the exercise is a regular one and defensive in nature, North Korea again lambasted the move, with leader Kim Jong-un's sister Yo-jong warning of possibly scrapping an inter-Korean military pact and cutting off dialogue with the South.

As the two sides adjusted the exercise, they were not able to carry out a planned Full Operational Capability (FOC) test this time, further dimming prospects 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 failed to do so amid the COVID-19 situation.

"Instead, the two sides carried out the practice of the future Combined Forces Command-led theater operations under a South Korean four-star general. By doing so, we will make progress toward the eventual wartime OPCON transition," the JCS said.

South Korea and the U.S. usually carry out major combined exercises twice a year, and the summertime training is usually held in around August, along with smaller-scale drills throughout the year.

In a joint statement issued after their high-level security talks on Thursday, the two sides vowed to further strengthen their deterrence posture and maintain joint readiness "against all shared threats to the alliance through combined training and exercises."

Austin told a press conference that the countries are "always looking for ways to make training better," though plans for upcoming exercises will be decided through close discussions by the two sides.

South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook (R) and his U.S. counterpart, Lloyd Austin, pose for a photo prior to their talks at the defense ministry in Seoul on March 17, 2021. Austin arrived in Seoul earlier in the day for a three-day visit. (Pool photo) (Yonhap)

graceoh@yna.co.kr
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