Although the exercise was scaled back due to COVID, it is likely to enrag North Korea in what it calls a “rehearsal for war”.
South Korea and the United States will begin their annual military exercises on Monday, the South Korean Army announced, adding that the joint exercise will be smaller than usual due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The nine-day war games will be a “computer-simulated command post exercise,” the chiefs of staff said in a statement on Sunday, stressing that the exercise was “strictly defensive”.
Yonhap News Agency said the drills will not include outdoor maneuvers, as they have been done year-round, while minimizing the number of troops and equipment due to the pandemic.
Although the combined exercises have been scaled back, they are likely to still infuriate North Korea in what they refer to as a “rehearsal for war”.
The JCS said South Korea and the US decided to continue the military exercise after “taking full account of the COVID-19 situation, maintaining combat readiness, denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and peace building.”
It added that part of the exercise will include preparing for the full serviceability test required for the War-Time Operations Control (OPCON) transfer from the United States to South Korea.
Since the Korean War of 1950-1953, the US military has retained the authority to control both South Korean and US forces in the event that another war breaks out on the Korean peninsula. About 28,500 US troops are stationed in South Korea.
Moon Jae-in, the President of South Korea, has made operational control of these joint forces a primary goal of his administration.
While this week’s exercises provide an opportunity to assess Seoul’s willingness to adopt OPCON, the scaled-down nature of the exercises could make Moon’s effort to complete the transfer before his term ends in 2022.
Before the pandemic, the exercises had been reduced to facilitate US negotiations to dismantle Pyongyang’s nuclear programs.
However, those talks had stalled since a summit meeting between the North Korean and US governments collapsed in February 2019 after then-US President Donald Trump accepted North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s demands for comprehensive sanctions relief in exchange for the partial Handover of his country’s nuclear power plant had refused capabilities.
After talks stalled and Kim promised to expand its weapons programs in January, experts fear North Korea could use the upcoming military exercises to resume nuclear and missile testing.
“Puppy. Set your clocks, ”said Joshua Pollack, editor of the Nonproliferation Review, on Twitter, referring to a possible reaction from North Korea to the war games in the US and South Korea.
However, Chad O’Carroll, CEO of Korea Risk Group, which oversees North Korea, said he did not expect Pyongyang to be “too militant this time around.”
“I think there is too much on the national agenda to risk a significant escalation,” he said on Twitter. “And this is a government that focuses most of its resources on one key issue at a time.”
For various reasons, I do not suspect that the DPRK is reacting too militarily this time.
Maybe famous last words! We will see..
– Chad O’Carroll (@chadocl) March 7, 2021
North Korea is one of the poorest countries in Asia and faces the greatest challenges since a famine that killed millions in the 1990s.
The country’s economy, already hit by US-led sanctions, has been hit by border closings in connection with pandemics with its key trading partner, China, leading to “widespread food shortages and malnutrition,” according to a United Nations expert.
In addition to the suffering, tens of thousands of houses and vast arable land were damaged in floods last summer.
During the Labor Party Congress in January, Kim described the past five years as “the worst of the worst.”
Last month, the North Korean leader fired a senior economic official and discussed the performance of his cabinet. He said they hadn’t come up with any new ideas to save the ailing economy.