US, South Korea open biggest exercises in years amid threats from the north

Seoul, South Korea — The United States and South Korea began their largest combined military training in years on Monday as they ramp up their defenses against the growing North Korean nuclear threat.

The exercises could provoke an angry response from North Korea, which has ramped up its weapons testing activities at a record pace this year, while repeatedly threatening conflict with Seoul and Washington amid a protracted stalemate in diplomacy.

The Ulchi Freedom Shield exercises will continue until September 1 in South Korea and will include field exercises with aircraft, warships, tanks and possibly tens of thousands of troops.

While Washington and Seoul describe their exercises as defensive, North Korea portrays them as invasion rehearsals and has used them to justify developing nuclear weapons and missiles.

Ulchi Freedom Shield, which began a four-day South Korean civil defense training program led by government personnel, will reportedly include exercises simulating joint strikes, frontline reinforcement of weapons and fuel, and removal of weapons of mass destruction.

The Allies will also train for drone strikes and other new warfare developments showcased during Russia’s war against Ukraine and practice joint military-civilian responses to attacks on seaports, airports and major industrial facilities such as semiconductor plants.

The United States and South Korea had canceled some of their regular exercises in recent years and reduced others to computer simulations to make room for the Trump administration’s diplomacy with North Korea and because of concerns about COVID-19.

Tensions have mounted since the collapse of the second meeting between former President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in early 2019. The Americans then rejected North Korean demands for a major lifting of crippling US-led sanctions in the country. exchange for the dismantling of an obsolete nuclear complex, which would amount to a partial surrender of the North’s nuclear capabilities. Kim has since vowed to bolster his nuclear deterrent in the face of “gangster-like” US pressure.

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The South Korean military has not disclosed the number of South Korean and US troops participating in the Ulchi Freedom Shield, but has portrayed the training as a message of strength. Seoul’s Ministry of Defense said last week that Ulchi Freedom Shield is “normalizing” large-scale training and field exercises among the Allies to strengthen their alliance and bolster their defense position against the evolving North Korean threat.

Before being suspended or downsized, the United States and South Korea held major joint exercises in South Korea every spring and summer.

The spring drills had involved live fire drills with a wide variety of land, air and sea assets and typically involved about 10,000 US and 200,000 Korean troops. Tens of thousands of Allied troops took part in the summer exercises, which mainly consisted of computer simulations to sharpen joint decision-making and planning, although the South Korean military has emphasized the revival of field training this year.

The exercises follow North Korea’s resignation last week of South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s “bold” proposal of economic benefits in return for denuclearization steps, accusing Seoul of recycling proposals that Pyongyang has long rejected.

Kim Yo Jong, the increasingly powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, described Yoon’s proposal as foolish, stressing that the North has no intention of giving away an arsenal that her brother clearly sees as its strongest guarantee for survival.

She harshly criticized Yoon for continuing military exercises with the United States, as well as for allowing South Korean civilian activists to fly anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets and other “dirty waste” over the border by balloon.

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She also mocked U.S. and South Korean military capabilities for monitoring the North’s missile activity, urging that the South misread the launch site of the North’s final missile tests last Wednesday, hours before Yoon. used a press conference to urge Pyongyang to return to diplomacy.

Kim Yo Jong’s statement came a week after she warned of “deadly” retaliation against South Korea over a recent North Korean COVID-19 outbreak, which Pyongyang doubtfully claims was caused by leaflets and other objects brought out by southern activists. There are concerns that the threat portends provocation, including a nuclear or missile test or even border clashes, and that the north could try to ramp up tensions somewhere around Allied exercises.

In an interview with Associated Press Television last month, Choe Jin, deputy director of a think tank at North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, said the United States and South Korea would face “unprecedented” security challenges if they attacked their hostile forces. not lessen military pressure. campaign against North Korea, including joint military exercises.

Last week’s launches of two suspected cruise missiles set a record pace in North Korean missile testing in 2022, requiring more than 30 ballistic launches, including the country’s first demonstrations of intercontinental ballistic missiles in nearly five years.

North Korea’s high testing activity underscores its dual purpose of increasing its arsenal and forcing the United States to accept the idea of ​​the north as a nuclear power so that it can negotiate economic and security concessions from a strong position, experts say.

Kim Jong Un could quickly raise the bar as evidence suggests the North is preparing to conduct its first nuclear test since September 2017, when it claimed to have developed a thermonuclear weapon to fit its ICBMs.

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