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(News Focus) Allies downplay planned military drills amid peace mood

2018/03/20 14:29

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By Lee Chi-dong

SEOUL, March 20 (Yonhap) -- South Korea and the United States finally made public a decision Tuesday to resume their regular joint war games, apparently trying to tone down the annual exercises.

They are faced with the dilemma of needing to both beef up their combined defense posture and avoid throwing cold water on a rare peace mood on the divided peninsula.

The allies will launch the Foal Eagle/Key Resolve drills in Korea on April 1 at a scale "similar" to that of previous years, South Korea's defense ministry said in a three-paragraph statement. It gave no details of the schedule or program.

The U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) posted a translated version on its website.

In Washington, the Pentagon's spokesman Marine Lt. Col. Christopher Logan also said the exercises will be comparable to earlier ones in size but did not elaborate on the timetable either.

An image of South Korea-U.S. joint military training (Yonhap) An image of South Korea-U.S. joint military training (Yonhap)

Instead, defense officials offered a background briefing for reporters.

They said Foal Eagle, which involves the large-scale deployment of troops and equipment, is to run for four weeks, while the Key Resolve command-post war game will be held for "about two weeks" from mid-April.

Such a limited revelation contrasts with usual announcements by the allies' defense authorities.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Defense said publicly that some 3,600 American troops would be sent to Korea for Foal Eagle on top of the 28,500-strong USFK. It described the two-month-long training from March 1 as meant to increase readiness to defend South Korea.

The U.S. military even arranged a media tour of the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier participating in Foal Eagle.

In 2016, the USFK released its own statement specifying the starting and ending dates of both Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, for which another supercarrier, the USS John C. Stennis, was mobilized.

Those were when the risk of war was relatively high here due to North Korea's provocative acts.

The allies favored a show of force to stave off a possible miscalculation by the North Korean military and relieve public security concerns here. South Korea proposed the U.S. expand the rotational deployment of U.S. strategic assets, often referring to flattops, nuclear subs and strategic bombers, to and around the peninsula.

Gen. Jeong Kyeong-doo (C), chairman of South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), and Gen. Vincent K. Brooks (L), commander of the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), in a file photo posted on the USFK's Facebook. (Yonhap) Gen. Jeong Kyeong-doo (C), chairman of South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), and Gen. Vincent K. Brooks (L), commander of the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), in a file photo posted on the USFK's Facebook. (Yonhap)

South Korean officials dismissed a view that they are seeking to play it low-key this time.

"The purpose of the drills and the size of participating troops will be similar to those in previous years. The program will be similar as well," an official at the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), told reporters.

He stressed the combined practice is defensive in nature, aimed at maintaining combat readiness in line with the 1953 mutual defense treaty.

A problem for media is the difficulty of verifying the military's announcement on the size and intensity of the military operation.

In regard to the halving of the Foal Eagle period, the JCS official ascribed it to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics and Paralympics that finished at the weekend.

South Korea earlier asked the U.S. to avoid overlap between the Olympics and the military training, which has long been condemned by Pyongyang as a preparation for invasion.

Pyongyang responded with an olive branch and agreed to hold the third inter-Korean summit at the truce village of Panmunjom in late April.

The military plans to wrap up Foal Eagle before the summit, as Seoul is eager to ride on the momentum of inter-Korean reconciliation and the North's peace gestures created on the occasion of the Olympics.

The allies also left the Key Resolve schedule flexible in consideration of U.S. President Donald Trump's plan to meet the North's leader Kim Jong-un "by May."

   Kim would not want to discuss denuclearization, a peace regime and the possible pullout of American forces from Korea while such a major military exercise is under way.

"Initially, South Korea and the U.S. planned to start Key Resolve on April 23 but it was rescheduled to mid-April," an informed source said. "It's relatively easy to adjust the schedule of Key Resolve as it's largely computer simulated. It will depend on whether and when the Kim-Trump summit will be held."

   lcd@yna.co.kr

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