South Korea and the United States will begin their annual military exercises on Monday, the South Korean army has announced, adding that the joint drill will be smaller than usual because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The nine-day war games will be a “computer-simulated command post exercise”, the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement on Sunday, stressing that the exercise is “strictly defensive” in nature.
Yonhap news agency said the exercises will not include outdoor manoeuvres, as they have been carried out throughout the year, while the number of troops and equipment will be minimised due to the pandemic.
Though scaled back, the combined exercises are still likely to infuriate North Korea which calls them a “rehearsal for war”.
The JCS said South Korea and the US decided to move forward with the military drill after “comprehensively taking into consideration the COVID-19 situation, the maintenance of the combat readiness posture, the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula and the establishment of peace”.
It added that part of the drill will involve preparation for the full operational capability test, which is necessary for the transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) from the US to South Korea.
Since the 1950-1953 Korean War, the US military has retained the authority to control both South Korean and US forces in case of another war breaking out on the Korean Peninsula. There are about 28,500 US troops stationed in South Korea.
Moon Jae-in, the president of South Korea, has made obtaining operational control of those joint forces a major goal of his administration.
While this week’s exercises will provide a chance to assess Seoul’s readiness to take over OPCON, the scaled-back nature of the drills could complicate Moon’s drive to complete the transfer before his term ends in 2022.
Even before the pandemic, the drills had been reduced to facilitate US negotiations aimed at dismantling Pyongyang’s nuclear programmes.
But those talks have been at a deadlock since a summit between the North Korean and US leaders broke down in February 2019 after then-US President Donald Trump rejected North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s demands for broad sanctions relief in exchange for partially surrendering his country’s nuclear capabilities.
With talks stalled and Kim pledging in January to expand his weapons programmes, experts worry North Korea may use the upcoming military drills to resume nuclear and missiles tests.
“Welp. Set your watches,” Joshua Pollack, editor of the Nonproliferation Review, said on Twitter, referring to a possible response from North Korea to the US and South Korean war games.
But Chad O’Carroll, CEO of Korea Risk Group, which monitors North Korea, said he did not expect Pyongyang “to respond too militarily this time”.
“I think there’s too much on the domestic agenda going wrong to risk any significant tit-for-tat escalation,” he said on Twitter. “And this is a government which tends to focus most of its resources on dealing with one key issue at a time.”
North Korea is one of the poorest countries in Asia and is facing its most severe challenges since a famine killed millions of people in the 1990s.
The country’s economy, already battered by US-led sanctions, has been hammered by pandemic-related border closings with its main trading partner, China, causing “widespread food shortages and malnutrition”, according to a United Nations expert.
Adding to the suffering, tens of thousands of homes and vast swaths of farmland were also damaged during floods last summer.
Kim, during the Workers Party Congress in January, called the last five years “the worst of the worst”.Last month, the North Korean leader fired a senior economic official and ripped into the performance of his cabinet, saying they had failed to come up with new ideas to salvage the ailing economy.