The US and South Korea will begin their largest joint military exercise next week. The biggest drills in years come in the face of an increasingly aggressive North Korea, which has escalated weapons tests and threatened nuclear conflict against Seoul and Washington, South Korea’s military said Tuesday.
The two allies’ summer exercises will take place from August 22 to September 1 in South Korea under the name Ulchi Freedom Shield. The drills will include field exercises involving aircraft, warships, tanks and possibly tens of thousands of troops.
The exercise underscores Washington and Seoul’s commitment to resuming large-scale drills after they canceled some of their regular drills and reduced the scale of other drills to computer simulations in recent years to create space for diplomacy with Pyongyang and also because of the COVID-19 issue.
The US Department of Defense also said the US, South Korean and Japanese navies took part in a ballistic missile warning, search and tracking exercise off the coast of Hawaii from August 8 to 14. According to the department, the drills are meant to advance trilateral cooperation in the face of challenges from North Korea.
Even though the US and South Korea have declared their drills defensive in nature, the Ulchi Freedom Shield will almost certainly draw an angry reaction from North Korea. Pyongyang calls all allied exercises a rehearsal for attack and justifies its development of missiles and nuclear weapons.
Prior to being suspended or reduced in scale, the US and South Korea conducted major joint exercises every spring and summer in South Korea. The spring drills include real-life shooting exercises involving multiple assets on land, sea and air and typically involve around 10,000 American troops and 200,000 Korean troops.
Tens of thousands of Allied troops participated in the summer drills, which consisted mostly of computer simulations to hone their decision-making and planning skills. But the South Korean military has stressed that it will resume large-scale exercises on the ground this time.
Officials at South Korea’s Ministry of Defense and its Joint Chiefs of Staff did not comment on the number of US and South Korean troops that will participate in the Ulchi Freedom Shield exercise.
“The biggest meaning of Ulchi Freedom Shield is that it normalizes South Korea-US joint exercises and field exercises, which contributes to the rebuilding of the South Korea-US alliance and joint defense posture,” said Moon Hong-sik, a spokesman for the Ministry of Defense.
Some experts say North Korea may use the drills as an excuse to escalate tensions. [uh/ab]