Scaling down allies' joint drill yet again would further embolden North Korea
Discussions are underway between South Korea and the US on details of their annual summertime joint military exercise, according to Seoul's Defense Ministry.
A ministry spokesperson told a press briefing Monday that the timing, scale and exact manner of the upcoming drill had not yet been finalized.
Attention is being drawn to whether and how the allies will stage the exercise at a time when Seoul and Washington have been working to resume long-stalled talks with North Korea. Pyongyang has reacted sensitively to South Korea-US combined drills, branding them as a rehearsal for an invasion.
The allies usually stage major joint exercises twice a year -- in March and August, along with smaller-scale drills throughout the year. The biannual major exercises have been skipped or reduced to computer-simulated war games involving no massive outdoor maneuvers since then US President Donald Trump held his first summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in June 2018.
Sources here familiar with the ongoing discussions between the allies say the upcoming drill is expected to kick off in the second week of August for a three-week run and take the form of a computer-simulated command post exercise without field training.
Seoul seems to be persuading Washington that conducting a full-scale exercise would irk the North and hamper efforts to reopen dialogue with the recalcitrant regime.
President Moon Jae-in's administration, which is preoccupied with inter-Korean reconciliation, remains reluctant to put the allies' combined drills back on track. It is hoping to make a breakthrough in stalled ties with Pyongyang before Moon leaves office next year.
During their first in-person summit at the White House in May, Moon and US President Joe Biden agreed to strengthen the joint defense preparedness of the allies. Biden's pledge to provide coronavirus vaccines for all 550,000 South Korean troops was seen as paving the way for Seoul and Washington to resume the full-scale field training despite the protracted pandemic.
But after returning home, Moon backpedaled on the issue, saying it would be difficult to carry out a massive military exercise in the near future. A group of ruling party lawmakers last week issued a statement calling for putting off the drill, with a senior presidential adviser on unification going so far as to propose shelving it.
The US Defense Department affirmed there would be no change in conducting the planned exercise. But the Biden administration appears to feel the need to avoid aggravating -- at least for the time being -- the atmosphere for its professed diplomatic engagement with the North to achieve the complete denuclearization of the Kim regime.
Canceling or scaling down the combined drills in the past few years has only emboldened Pyongyang's attitude. Since late 2019, it has rejected offers by Seoul and Washington to resume talks while making provocations in a measured way by test-firing short-range ballistic missiles.
Repeating computer-simulated war games involving no actual deployment of troops and equipment not only undermines the joint military preparedness of the allies but also weakens the grounds for keeping US forces here. It is no exaggerated worry that the continuous absence of full-scale combined drills could reduce the South Korea-US alliance to a skeleton.
Seoul's insistence on scaling down the upcoming drill also goes against its move toward an early takeover of wartime operational control of South Korean troops from the US. In a meeting with top military officers Monday, Defense Minister Suh Wook called for stepped-up efforts to expedite the wartime OPCON transfer.
The two countries have been working for the conditions-based OPCON transfer, setting no specific deadline. Conducting combined drills in a full-scale manner is essential for assessing South Korea's readiness to retake the wartime OPCON.
Discussions on the upcoming joint drill are being held as the US is deploying strategic military assets including unmanned reconnaissance planes here to strengthen the monitoring of movements by the North's military, which kicked off its summertime drills last week.
In a key meeting of the North's ruling Workers' Party last month, Kim said his country should prepare for both dialogue and confrontation with Seoul and Washington. The allies' failure to conduct full-scale joint drills might have partly served to give the North Korean ruler room to use such rhetoric, which could be seen as deriding South Korea and the US.
Firm military preparedness should be coupled with repeated willingness to reengage with Pyongyang in order to push the North toward dialogue.
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