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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Aug. 9)

All News 07:04 August 09, 2021

Haggles over joint drills
South should not play into hands of North

South Korea is likely to conduct the upcoming summertime military exercises with the United States as planned, without heeding North Korea's warnings that the joint drills could cloud the future of inter-Korean ties. Yet the two allies are expected to scale back the size and scope of the annual exercises due to the resurging COVID-19 pandemic.

A government source said Sunday that Seoul and Washington have tentatively agreed on the scaled-back drills involving a minimum level of troops from both sides. The planned exercises will thus probably be smaller than the springtime one held in March, with no field drill. If the agreement is finalized, the computer-simulated Combined Command Post Training (CCPT) will take place for 11 days from Aug. 16 following four days of crisis management staff training starting Tuesday.

Holding the exercise even in a scaled-down manner is better than canceling or postponing it. Annual joint military drills are essential to upgrading combined defense preparedness and strengthening the alliance between Seoul and Washington. Our national security cannot and should not be compromised for whatever reasons. In this sense, there should be no room for the North to tell us not to hold any combined drills which are purely defensive in nature.

Regrettably, however, Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, warned on Aug. 1 that the joint exercises will cast a cloud over South-North relations. Her warning came after the two Koreas restored their severed cross-border hotlines July 27. The reconnection has raised cautious optimism about a new round of detente on the peninsula.

But the problem is that Pyongyang is still seeking to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington by widening the differences between the allies over sensitive defense and security issues such as the combined military exercises. The North is also trying to create an ideological divide between conservatives and progressives in the South, particularly ahead of the March 2022 presidential election.

For this reason, the Moon Jae-in administration and the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) should not play into the hands of North Korea. However, it is deplorable that more than 70 lawmakers of the DPK and minority progressive parties issued a statement calling for the postponement of the military drills. It is irresponsible for them to make such a demand even without any promises by the North to return to dialogue. They ignored DPK Chairman Rep. Song Young-gil's stance that the exercises need to be held as planned.

More disappointing is that President Moon gave the impression that he would opt out of the exercises in a bid to restart the deadlocked inter-Korean peace process. Moon, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, seemed to pass the buck on to the Ministry of National Defense by instructing the ministry to consult with the U.S. with "prudence" ― without making a decision on the matter by himself. The Ministry of Unification also voiced its preference to put off the exercise. All these have only created confusion among the people and risked undermining the alliance with the U.S.

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