U.S., South Korea hold largest joint military drills in 5 years

The United States and South Korea began their biggest combined military training in years Monday as they heighten their defence posture against the growing North Korean nuclear threat.

Former U.S. president Donald Trump scrapped drills, and then COVID-19 delayed their return

Two tanks are seen on a muddy strip of land near a forest.
South Korean howitzers take positions in Paju, near the border with North Korea, on Monday. The United States and South Korea began their biggest combined military training in years on Monday. (Ahn Young-joon/The Associated Press)

The United States and South Korea began their biggest combined military training in years Monday as they heighten their defence posture against the growing North Korean nuclear threat.

The drills could draw an angry response from North Korea, which has dialled up its weapons testing activity to a record pace this year while repeatedly threatening conflicts with Seoul and Washington amid a prolonged stalemate in diplomacy.

The Ulchi Freedom Shield exercises will continue through Sept. 1 in South Korea and include field exercises involving aircraft, warships, tanks and potentially tens of thousands of troops.

While Washington and Seoul describe their exercises as defensive, North Korea portrays them as invasion rehearsals and has used them to justify its nuclear weapons and missiles development.

Ulchi Freedom Shield, which started along with a four-day South Korean civil defence training program led by government employees, will reportedly include exercises simulating joint attacks, front-line reinforcements of arms and fuel, and removals of weapons of mass destruction.

Drills too 'provocative': Trump

The allies will also train for drone attacks and other new developments in warfare shown during Russia's war on Ukraine and practise joint military-civilian responses to attacks on seaports, airports and major industrial facilities such as semiconductor factories.

The United States and South Korea in past years had cancelled some of their regular drills and downsized others to computer simulations to create space for Donald Trump administration's diplomacy with North Korea and later because of COVID-19 concerns.

The decision by Trump in early 2018 to cancel the exercises — with the then-president deeming them too expensive and "provocative" to North Korea — was later criticized as an unnecessary concession to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un by former national security adviser John Bolton.

In his book The Room Where It Happened, Bolton said both he and secretary of state Mike Pompeo were taken aback by Trump's decision, which came without consulting his cabinet.

Diplomatic efforts collapsed after the second meeting between Trump and Kim in early 2019. The Americans then rejected North Korean demands for a major release of crippling U.S.-led sanctions in exchange for dismantling an aging nuclear complex, which would have amounted to a partial surrender of the North's nuclear capabilities. Kim has since vowed to bolster his nuclear deterrent in the face of "gangster-like" U.S. pressure.

South Korea's military has not revealed the number of South Korean and U.S. troops participating in Ulchi Freedom Shield, but has portrayed the training as a message of strength. Seoul's Defence Ministry said last week that Ulchi Freedom Shield "normalizes" large-scale training and field exercises between the allies to help bolster their alliance.

Before the training was shelved or downsized, the United States and South Korea held major joint exercises every spring and summer in South Korea.

Tens of thousands of troops participate

The spring exercises had included live-fire drills involving a broad range of land, air and sea assets and usually involved around 10,000 American and 200,000 Korean troops. Tens of thousands of allied troops participated in the summertime drills, which mainly consisted of computer simulations to hone joint decision-making and planning, although South Korea's military has emphasized the revival of field training this year.

The drills follow North Korea's dismissal last week of South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol's "audacious" proposal of economic benefits in exchange for denuclearization steps, accusing Seoul of recycling proposals Pyongyang has long rejected.

Several people in COVID-19 masks stand behind a banner with Korean writing, some holding their own signs.
South Korean protesters hold a rally on Monday in front of the War Memorial of Korea in Seoul against the joint military exercises between their country and the United States. (Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images)

Kim Yo Jong, the increasingly powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, described Yoon's proposal as foolish and stressed that the North has no intentions to give away an arsenal her brother clearly sees as his strongest guarantee of survival.

She also ridiculed U.S.-South Korean military capabilities for monitoring the North's missile activity, insisting that the South misread the launch site of the North's latest missile tests on Wednesday last week, hours before Yoon used a news conference to urge Pyongyang to return to diplomacy.

Kim Yo Jong's statement came a week after she warned of "deadly" retaliation against South Korea over a recent North Korean COVID-19 outbreak, which Pyongyang dubiously claims was caused by leaflets and other objects floated by southern activists. There are concerns that the threat portends a provocation that might include a nuclear or missile test or even border skirmishes, and that the North might try to raise tensions sometime around the allied drills.

Last week's launches of two suspected cruise missiles extended a record pace in North Korean missile testing in 2022, which has involved more than 30 ballistic launches, including the country's first demonstrations of intercontinental ballistic missiles in nearly five years.

With files from CBC News