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(LEAD) S. Korea, U.S. to conduct annual joint military drills next month
By Kim Eun-jung
SEOUL, Feb. 21 (Yonhap) -- South Korea and the United States will stage their annual joint military drills next month, the Combined Forces Command (CFC) said Thursday, amid heightened tension on the Korean Peninsula following North Korea's recent nuclear test.

   The computer-based simulation, called Key Resolve, will be held from March 11-25 to improve the combined forces' operation and combat capabilities to deter threats from the North, the CFC said.

   The two-week war game will also involve about 10,000 South Korean and 3,500 American troops to test various scenarios in which South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff plays a leading role in conducting operations. Such practice is needed as Seoul prepares to regain its wartime operational control (OPCON) from Washington at the end of 2015.

   "This is the first year that the Key Resolve exercise is being led by the Republic of Korea JCS, not the Combined Forces Command," the CFC said in a statement. "This will help improve the ROK military's operational command capabilities and establish a basis for the wartime operations control transition."


Separately, the two allies plan to hold the Foal Eagle joint military exercise, which involves a set of land, sea and air maneuvers, from March 1 to April 30.

   The two-month field tactical training will mobilize about 200,000 Korean and 10,000 American troops, mostly from overseas.

   "The exercises are designed to enhance the security and readiness of the Republic of Korea and are deterrent in nature," the CFC said.

   According to military officials, consultations have been under way between Seoul and Washington on whether to mobilize the U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, F-22 stealth fighters and B-52 heavy bombers for this year's exercise. CFC officials declined to comment as a decision has not been made yet.

   The CFC said the North Korean military has been informed about the exercises. Observers from other nations will ensure they do not break the armistice agreement signed at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.

   South Korea and the U.S. regularly hold military exercises to bolster their readiness against a possible North Korean invasion. The communist North has repeatedly denounced them as rehearsals for a northward invasion.

   The large-scale annual drill comes at a time when tensions are running high, with Pyongyang issuing daily threats of retaliation against "hostile" forces after its third nuclear test on Feb. 12.

   On Tuesday, Pyongyang's envoy to United Nations warned of "final destruction" against Seoul and its allies if they continue to push for tougher sanctions for its nuclear program, saying it is a "self-defense" measure.

   Pyongyang's provocations and repeated warnings have sparked calls to delay the planned transfer of the wartime operational control. When the transfer is complete, the CFC, which currently oversees joint military operations between some 650,000 South Korean troops and 28,500 American soldiers stationed in the nation, will be replaced by another body.

   On Wednesday, American ambassador Sung Kim said the transfer of the OPCON will take place only when all preparations are completed, hinting at the possibility of rescheduling the plan if necessary.

   Seoul's defense ministry, however, said such a decision is not currently under consideration and the two allies have been closely working together to meet the 2015 schedule.

   "South Korea and the U.S. decided the timing of the OPCON transition based on trust and the alliance between the two nations, and are making preparations to meet the deadline," ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said in a briefing.
Militaries of the allies will test the capability of the combined forces through a joint military exercise to find out what else is needed for a smooth transition, Kim said.

   The U.S. has held wartime command of South Korean troops since the beginning of the Korean War, though it handed over peacetime control of the South Korean military to Seoul in 1994.