The United States and South Korea are expected to begin joint military exercises on August 21st, despite pressure from North Korea and China to halt the exercises; sparking concern that the drills could dramatically increase tensions with North Korea. The exercises have traditionally been held twice a year, since 1968, typically angering North Korea who view the drills as a show of aggression.
The two major exercises are Foal Eagle and Key Resolve (FEKR), held in March or April, and Ulchi Freedom Guardian (UFG), held in August. According to US Forces Korea, the exercises are designed to “highlight the longstanding military partnership” between the US and South Korea, and improve stability and security on the Korean Peninsula. Critics of the drills argue their unnecessary and a needless provocation, whereas those in favor argue the drills are essential in making sure troops are combat ready; especially US troops who rotate into the region on year-long deployments.
The UFG exercise is scheduled for 10 days, and typically involve around 30,000 American soldiers and about 56,000 South Korean troops. The total number of participants can get into the hundreds of thousands though since government officials and civilians also take part in some exercises. The Australian Defence Force is also expected to take part in the exercises, however the exact number of Australian soldiers taking part has yet to be confirmed. The US and South Korea have described the exercises as defensive and crucial to maintaining a deterrent against any North Korean aggression. Each year the drills trigger threats and criticism from North Korea.
“We will see increased numbers [of NK troops] on the peninsula, but no more than we see every year. Our messaging will remain consistent. … These exercises are necessary to maintain readiness in the face of provocative acts threatening the [South Korea] and the US. Our job is to provide our leadership with viable military options if called upon, and exercises like this hone our ability to do that,” Army Col. Chad G. Carroll, a military spokesman in South Korea, said in an email to the Washington Post.
The drills have also drawn scrutiny from Russia and China this year, who have suggested canceling the operation in order to reduce tensions. However, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joseph Dunford, has said the exercises were “not currently on the table as part of the negotiation at any level”.
“My advice to our leadership is that we not dial back our exercises. The exercises are very important to maintaining the ability of the alliance to defend itself. As long as the threat in North Korea exists, we need to maintain a high state of readiness to respond to that threat,“ Dunford told reporters in Beijing.
Army Col. Robert Manning, a Pentagon spokesman, has said that the US and South Korea have “made a lot of progress” these last couple of years in preparing against any potential North Korean threat.
North Korean media recently reported that Kim Jong Un has decided to delay his decision to fire four missiles towards the US territory of Guam, a vital air base and Navy facility, and wait to see what the United States does next. It has been speculated Kim was referring to the joint US-Korean drills. In 2010, South Korea fired test shots during a military drill, and in response North Korea shelled the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong killing two soldiers.
According to the Japanese government, Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, recently met with Japan’s defense and foreign ministers in Washington to discuss deterring North Korean threats and Tokyo’s ballistic missile system. Japan’s Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera recently stated Japan would target and shoot down any missile fired at Guam by North Korea. Some experts have questioned whether or not Japan is actually capable of shooting down the potential ICBM.
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