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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Aug. 3)

All News 07:06 August 03, 2021

Flexible approach
Korea, US should make wise decision on joint drills

The Ministry of Unification has asked for a flexible approach toward the annual joint summertime military exercises between South Korea and the United States, scheduled to start Aug. 16, in an apparent move to rekindle inter-Korean dialogue.

"We have maintained that the combined military drills should not lead to heighten military tension on the Korean Peninsula under any circumstances," ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo said during a regular press briefing Monday. "We have been making efforts to deal with the matter (of the joint exercises) wisely and flexibly and will continue such endeavors in the future."

Her statement came after a ranking ministry official cited the need to postpone the drills during a press meeting Friday. The ministry made clear its position on the matter in order to restart the stalled inter-Korean dialogue after the two Koreas restored their severed communication hotlines last week.

It has, however, triggered a dispute over the possible weakening of the South Korea-U.S. alliance. Yet, the prospective postponement of the exercises is unlikely to undermine the country's defense posture seriously in light of the Korea-U.S. combined forces' strong capabilities, though the exercises are essential in enhancing military preparedness. Rather, a flexible approach is necessary given the persistent COVID-19 pandemic.

The Ministry of National Defense said Monday that Seoul and Washington were still discussing the matter. The U.S. Department of Defense also said a mutually agreed-upon decision will be made. The Moon Jae-in administration seems to prefer postponing or scaling back the joint drills in order to pursue the President's ambition of resuming his inter-Korean peace process. But Moon still faces a dilemma because the possible postponement or scaling-down of the joint exercises may foil his bid to take over wartime operational control of South Korea's armed forces from the U.S. by the end of his term.

It is inappropriate to push for the joint drills as planned, given the persevering fourth wave of COVID-19 infections spreading here. Conducting large-scale military exercises is feared to incite mass infections. In addition, the computer-simulated Combined Command Post Training (CCPT), set to take place indoors, is more vulnerable to mass infections than outdoor training.

The U.S. is allegedly opting for the exercise to be held as planned; so the two countries should have closer consultations on how to scale down the drills and shorten their duration. President Moon already expressed negative views on the joint exercises in May during a meeting with political party leaders, saying, "I believe massive drills are unfeasible because of the coronavirus pandemic." Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un might have also discussed the matter in the letters they exchanged from April.

A flexible approach is needed for South and North Korea to maintain a conciliatory mood created after the cross-border communication hotlines were reconnected July 27. Most of all, the two allies should put top priority on protecting their troops from COVID-19, as they rearranged the joint exercises scheduled for the first half of last year when the pandemic broke out.
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