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US, South Korea to hold scaled-back military exercises amid COVID-19 pandemic

This undated photo shows combat helicopters sitting on an airfield in US base Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, South Korea. (Photo by Yonhap)

South Korea and the United States have announced plans to hold their annual springtime joint military exercise this week, but the drill will be smaller than usual due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Though scaled back, the nine-day military exercises are still likely to infuriate North Korea, which considers the annual war games a “rehearsal for war.”

“The upcoming annual training is a computer-simulated command post exercise that is strictly defensive in nature,” the US Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement on Sunday.

It claimed that the objective of the joint drill is to maintain “the combat readiness posture and to support diplomatic efforts for denuclearization and establishment of peace on the Korean peninsula.”

It added that the exercises are mostly tabletop exercises and simulations that will not involve field training.

Last year, the annual joint springtime drills were canceled after some of the troops were infected with the coronavirus. But the two countries conducted a two-week drill in August focused on defending South Korea from a possible attack by the North.

The joint exercises have also been suspended or scaled down to create more space for the now-stalled diplomacy with North Korea.

Former US president Donald Trump, who held personal summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, said he had to “walk” away from diplomacy because the North Koreans had demanded the full lifting of economic sanctions before denuclearization.

The summits failed after the US refused to quit anti-Pyongyang measures in return for several steps taken by the North toward denuclearization.

Experts predict the new administration of President Joe Biden will likely continue the same foreign policy pursued by his predecessor.

North Korea maintains that its nuclear and missile capabilities are intended to defend the country against potential aggression charactrized by regular joint war games by Seoul and Washington on the Korean Peninsula.

The two Koreas remain technically at war since the 1950-1953 Korean War ended with an armistice rather than a peace treaty.

There are close to 30,000 US troops stationed in South Korea including soldiers, airmen, sailors and marines based in Camp Humphreys, Osan Air Base, Yongsan Garrison and Camp Kim. 

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