US and South Korea begin largest military drills for years as North ramps up tensions

The US and South Korea have begun their biggest joint military drills in years – a show of force that is expected to raise tensions with an increasingly hostile North Korea.

The exercises, known as Ulchi Freedom Shield, are being seen as a sign of the allies’ determination to restore large-scale training after they cancelled some regular drills and scaled down others to facilitate nuclear talks, and because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Details of the operation have not been released, but past exercises have involved tens of thousands of troops and large numbers of aircraft warships and tanks.

They will reportedly include simulated joint attacks, frontline reinforcements of arms and fuel, and removals of weapons of mass destruction.

North Korean army soldiers wearing face masks look at the South side during South Korean unification minister Lee In-young's visit to Panmunjom in the Demilitarised Zone, South Korea.
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The two militaries said in a joint statement said the drills were a response to an “increased volume and scale of [North Korean] missile tests” over the past year.

“With this in mind, and considering the evolving threat … both leaders committed to expanding the scope and scale of combined military exercises and training, they said, adding that Ulchi Freedom Shield would “bolster combined readiness”.

The 2019 exercises were cancelled after Donald Trump’s first summit with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, in Singapore, the previous year. Trump’s surprise concession was seen as an attempt to persuade Kim to abandon his nuclear weapons programme amid a flurry of diplomacy led by the then president and his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-in.

Four years on, Washington and Seoul have nothing substantive to show for their efforts at engagement. The North has resumed missile tests – including its first launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile at full range since 2017 – and speculation is building that it is preparing to conduct what would be its seventh nuclear test.

The US has said it will consider deploying strategic assets – which could theoretically include tactical nuclear weapons – if the North tests a nuclear device.

South Korea’s new president, Yoon Suk-yeol, took office in May promising a harder line against North Korean provocations that would include “normalising” the military exercises and boosting his country’s defences against the North.

The resumption of the drills suggests that South Korea and the US, which has 28,500 troops in the country, have reverted to robust displays of their combined military might in the wake of North Korea’s resumption of ballistic missile tests.

“The significance of this joint exercise is rebuilding the South Korea-US alliance and solidifying the combined defence posture by normalising … combined exercises and field training,” the South Korean defence ministry said.

While the allies insist the field exercises are designed to plan their response to a North Korean attack, Pyongyang routinely condemns them as a rehearsal for an invasion, and in the past has responded with missile launches.

The drills, which will end on 1 September, began against a backdrop of increasingly hostile rhetoric from the North.

It recently warned of “deadly retaliation” against the South, which it blamed for its Covid-19 outbreak, while Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s influential sister, last week dismissed Yoon’s offer of economic help in return for denuclearising as “absurd”, warning that the North would never “barter” its nuclear deterrent for aid.

Kim Jong-un, whose until recently appears to have been focused on containing the coronavirus outbreak, has said his country is “ready to mobilise” its nuclear capability in any war with the US and North Korea, although the regime has always insisted its nuclear weapons are a deterrent against a “hostile” US.

In a TV interview last month, Choe Jin, the deputy director of a thinktank run by North Korea’s foreign ministry, said the US and South Korea would face “unprecedented” security challenges unless they abandoned their “hostile military stance” against the North, including joint drills.

The North has been conducting missile tests at a record pace, with more than 30 ballistic missile launches this year, as it continues to pressure Washington to accept its status as a legitimate nuclear power – and one that some experts believe now has the ability to carry out a nuclear strike against the US mainland.

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