WASHINGTON - US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Sunday that this week's joint exercises with South Korea will involve fewer American troops than last year because of the current emphasis on integration, not because of recent tensions with North Korea.
The Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise is set to run from Monday through Aug. 31 with the participation of some 17,500 US service members, down from 25,000 last year.
Tensions have run high in recent weeks following North Korea's two intercontinental ballistic missile tests in July, and its threat to fire missiles towards the US territory of Guam.
Seeking to defuse the tensions, China and Russia have called for a suspension of the exercises in exchange for a halt to Pyongyang's provocations, a proposal rejected by Seoul and Washington.
But speculation has persisted that the allies may scale back the exercises.
"The numbers (of troops) are by design to achieve the exercise objectives and you always pick what you want to emphasize," Mattis told reporters en route to Jordan, according to a transcript released by his office. "Right now there is a heavy emphasis on command post operations, so the integration of all the different efforts."
Mattis also said the exercise had been planned months in advance to address areas of weakness and what the allies want to accomplish going forward.
"Sometimes it's better to leave them in their fundamental training mode rather than being out on the ground waiting for orders as staffs are learning how to work together," he said.
"Meanwhile, they're sharpening their combat skills while the staffs are sharpening integration skills."
Mattis added, "This right now is an exercise to make certain that we're ready to defend South Korea and our allies over there."
The computer-based drills are held annually to prepare the allies against a possible North Korean attack, but Pyongyang denounces them as a rehearsal for an invasion of the North.
In a Sunday editorial, North Korea's official Rodong Sinmun newspaper called the exercise "the most explicit expression of hostility against us" and an act of "adding fuel to the fire." (Yonhap)