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Discussions under way on upcoming S. Korea-US combined exercise: defense ministry

Fighter jet F-16 Falcon lifts off tarmac at Osan Air Base (Yonhap)
Fighter jet F-16 Falcon lifts off tarmac at Osan Air Base (Yonhap)
South Korea and the United States are discussing when and how to stage their annual summertime military exercise, the defense ministry said Monday, amid concerns the maneuvers could affect efforts to resume talks with North Korea.

The two sides usually hold the summertime drill in August. Sources said this year's exercise is expected to kick off around Aug. 10 for a three-week run and take the form of a computer-simulated command post exercise (CPX) without outdoor drills.

Whether and how to go ahead with the exercise has been an issue at a time when Seoul and Washington have been working to resume long-stalled talks with North Korea. Pyongyang has long bristled at such combined drills, branding them as a rehearsal for invasion.

"The timing, scale and exact ways of the upcoming exercise are not yet finalized," ministry spokesperson Boo Seung-chan told a regular briefing when asked to confirm some media reports that the exercise will be held in a scaled-back manner.

"Discussions are also under way on an FOC test," he said, citing the Full Operational Capability test, which is a step for the envisioned transfer of the wartime operational control (OPCON) of the Korean troops from Washington to Seoul.

The two sides planned to conduct the test last year as part of combined training, but they failed to do so amid the pandemic.

The defense ministry earlier said it will factor in diverse circumstances in determining details of the upcoming exercise, including the COVID-19 situation, peace efforts involving North Korea and the OPCON transition process.

Some civic groups and experts in Seoul call for its cancellation to advance the stalled denuclearization talks, but the South Korean and the US governments say combined exercises are crucial to ensure military readiness, which is their top priority, and joint programs are regular and defensive in nature.

The two sides usually stage major combined exercises twice a year -- in around March and in August, along with smaller-scale drills throughout the year.

This year's springtime program took place in March in a scaled-back manner amid the pandemic.

Asked about any "unusual" movements by North Korea at its Yongbyon nuclear complex or the Sinpo shipyard, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) in Seoul said that the South Korean and the US intelligence authorities are monitoring the situation while maintaining close coordination.

"Currently, there is nothing to say regarding the issue," JCS spokesperson Col. Kim Jun-rak said. "We are also closely checking movements by the North's military, as it usually kicks off its summertime drills in July." (Yonhap)