South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo (right) and US Defense Secretary Mark Esper (Yonhap)
South Korea and the United States have agreed to stage a major combined exercise next month in a scaled-back manner, rather than cancelling it, amid the continued spread of the new coronavirus, sources said Sunday.
Whether and how to conduct annual summertime exercises between the two countries have been a focus of attention as their springtime drills were postponed indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The two sets of exercises, which usually take place in March and August, are also watched closely by North Korea and are related to preparations for Seoul to take back the wartime operational control (OPCON) of its forces from the US.
"South Korea and the US shared the need to do what we are supposed to do and can do (as for the summertime exercise) after fully taking the current coronavirus situation into consideration," a Seoul government source said.
It is practically impossible to stage the exercise in a full-scale manner, as American troops necessary for the exercise could not come to South Korea in large numbers due to COVID-19.
"If a troop deployment from the US is not a must, we would not have to postpone the exercise that much," another source said.
It was supposed to take place for about two weeks starting around on Aug. 10. The allies are now eyeing mid- to late August, he added.
A military officer said that the authorities have been fully prepared for the upcoming exercise on the premise that it will be staged normally.
"As it is based on the computer-simulated command post exercise, not outdoor drills, we've been working hard to implement thorough COVID-19 prevention steps," he added.
The exercise, if held, will focus on a Full Operational Capability (FOC) test to verify if Seoul is on course to meet the conditions for the envisioned OPCON transition. It will, at the same time, be programmed to check and strengthen their combined readiness posture, according to the sources.
The South Korean authorities have called for the FOC test to be a key feature of the exercise, as the two sides agreed earlier. But the US military has reportedly maintained that it should be meant to boost their joint posture as a replacement of the springtime training.
"South Korea and the US are in the final stage of consultations to come up with an optimal way. The two sides fully understand each other's stance and have been working to fine-tune their differences," a government official said.
During the summertime exercise held in August 2019, Seoul and Washington conducted an initial operational capability (IOC) test, and their defense ministers decided to move on to the FOC test.
Following the FOC test, the allies will carry out a Full Mission Capability (FMC) test.
The Seoul government seeks to retake the OPCON under the current Moon Jae-in administration whose term will end in May 2022, though the transition is not time-based but conditions-based.
On Tuesday, Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo told a parliamentary session that the exercise is "necessary to protect the national security and the combined readiness posture."
Asked about ongoing discussions on the combined exercise, US Forces Korea (USFK) Public Affairs Director Col. Lee Peters said, "As a matter of USFK policy, we do not comment on planned or executed training, but rather view training as routine and continuously executed by all professional militaries to maintain trust, proficiency and readiness."
Earlier, unification minister nominee Lee In-young said he personally hopes that South Korea and the US postpone the exercise, noting that such flexibility could serve as a new message for North Korea.
The communist country has long lashed out at South Korea-US combined exercises, calling them a rehearsal for invasion of the North.
Last month, the regime drastically heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula by blowing up the inter-Korean liaison office building in the North's border town of Kaesong and threatening to take military actions against the South.
North Korea then suspended those plans upon leader Kim Jong-un's instruction, though it has hinted at continued moves to bolster "a war deterrent" to cope with "the potential military threat." (Yonhap)