By Aaron Kesel
The U.S. and South Korean militaries will go forward with their annual massive sea, land and air drills today, despite tension with North Korea who has recently threatened to shoot four Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missiles toward the U.S. owned island of Guam.
The annual joint exercises started in the 1970s, called Ulchi-Freedom Guardian, have long been planned for the end of August, but this time the drill which has often drawn scrutiny has come at a time when both Washington and Pyongyang have traded threats back and forth.
The 10-day joint military exercise will involve 17,500 American troops and 50,000 South Korean soldiers. The U.S. has called it a ‘defensive exercise.”
South Korean President Moon Jae-in also said in a statement that the joint drills, were purely “defensive” and did not aim to raise tensions on the peninsula, Reuters reported.
“There is no intent at all to heighten military tension on the Korean peninsula as these drills are held annually and are of a defensive nature,” Jae-in told Cabinet ministers.
“North Korea should not exaggerate our efforts to keep peace nor should they engage in provocations that would worsen the situation, using (the exercise) as an excuse,” Jae-in said.
In the past during the drills, one of the more controversial operations that took place was called “decapitation strikes” – a simulated attempt to kill Kim Jong-un and his top generals. It is not known if that part of the operation will be carried out or not during these exercises.
If it does include this exercise that would only further antagonize an already paranoid North Korean leadership, potentially provoking them to do something brash.
The U.S and South Korea hold two sets of war games every year, involving a massive number of troops and expansive display of military hardware.
The first operation Foal Eagle/Key Resolve is held in the spring, while the second Ulchi-Freedom Guardian (UFG) is in autumn.
Although the U.S. and South Korea insists the exercises are defensive, Foal Eagle in March included drills of preemptive military strikes to take out North Korean nuclear sites.
North Korean state media declared that the military exercises will “further drive the situation on the Korean Peninsula into a catastrophe.”
South Korea, China, and Russia have strongly opposed the war maneuvers by North Korea; and the U.S., China and Russia have urged the U.S. and North Korea to consider a “freeze for freeze” agreement to reduce tensions.
In the deal, Pyongyang would agree to suspend its tests of missiles and nuclear weapons, and Washington and Seoul would agree to suspend large-scale military exercises that might provoke the nation.
“I will prevent war at all cost,” South Korean President Moon Jae-in told reporters. “So I want all South Koreans to believe with confidence that there will be no war.”
“Only South Korea can decide military actions on the Korean Peninsula,” he said. “Nobody can choose to carry out military action without South Korea’s consent. The United States and President Trump have made a promise to fully cooperate and ask for our agreement in advance, before utilizing whatever options they might use against the North.”
Meanwhile, top Chinese generals have told Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, military action should not be an option on the Korean Peninsula.
“Negotiations are the only effective option,” Fan Changeling, vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission said.
Earlier this month South Korea and North Korea held bilateral peace talks to discuss resuming reunions of families separated since the Korean War more than 60 years ago. The two nations haven’t had any type of dialogue in three long years.
China’s Global Times newspaper, an arm of the Communist Party’s People’s Daily, thrashed the decision by the United States and South Korea to move forward with the exercises.
“The drill will definitely provoke Pyongyang more, and Pyongyang is expected to make a more radical response,” the newspaper wrote. “If South Korea really wants no war on the Korean Peninsula, it should try to stop this military exercise.”
North Korea has been known to respond strongly to the drills in 2014, the north fired scud missiles during Foal Eagle exercises.
Additionally, during the 2015 Ulchi-Freedom Guardian exercises, North Korea and South Korea exchanged artillery and rocket fire over the border. That military exchange came after two South Korean soldiers stepped on landmines in the Demilitarized Zone. The South then proceeded to accuse North Korean soldiers of sneaking across the border and planting landmines.
What will today’s drills bring? Will North Korea respond to the drills?