SKorea-US drills begin near North’s border
The Manila Times
Asia And Oceania
SEOUL: The South Korean and United States militaries began massive livefire drills near the border with North Korea on Thursday, despite Pyongyang warning it won’t tolerate what it calls such a hostile invasion rehearsal on its doorstep. The drills, the first of the allies’ five rounds of firing exercises until mid-June, marked 70 years since the establishment of the military alliance between Seoul and Washington. North Korea has typically reacted to such major South Korean-US exercises with missile and other weapons tests. Since the start of 2022, North Korea has test-launched more than 100 missiles, but none since it fired a solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in mid-April. Pyongyang has argued its torrid pace of tests was meant to respond to the expanded military drills between Seoul and Washington, but observers say the North aims to advance its weapons development then wrest greater concessions from its rivals in eventual diplomacy. Thursday’s exercises, called “the combined annihilation firepower drills,” would be the biggest of their kind and have been held 11 times since they began in 1977, the South Korean Defense Ministry said. Ministry officials said this year’s drills would involve advanced stealth fighter jets, attack helicopters, tanks and multiple rocket launch systems from both allies. It wasn’t immediately known how many troops would take part in the drills, but previous exercises in 2017 — the most recent ones before this year — drew about 2,000 soldiers and 250 weapons assets from both countries. An earlier Defense Ministry statement said the drills were meant to enhance the allies’ combined operational performance capabilities. It also said South Korea and the United States would seek to establish “the overwhelming deterrence and response capabilities” to cope with North Korean nuclear and missile threats. Last Friday, North Korea’s state media called the drills “a typical North Korea-targeted war rehearsal.” It said Pyongyang “cannot but take a more serious note of the fact that” that the drills would be held in an area a few kilometers (miles) from its frontier. The official Korean Central News Agency said the US and South Korea would face unspecified “corresponding responses” over their series of largescale, provocative drills. The latest drills came after South Korea and the US conducted earlier this year their biggest field exercises in five years. The US also sent the nuclearpowered USS Nimitz aircraft carrier and nuclear-capable bombers for joint exercises with the South. Moon Seong Mook, an analyst for the Seoul-based Korea Research Institute for National Strategy, said North Korea could use the South Korea-US drills as a pretext to resume testing activities to attain its stated goal of modernizing its weapons arsenals. Domestic issues, such as North Korea’s push to increase agricultural production amid the rice-planting season, could still affect its decision on weapons tests, he added. “North Korea can’t help feel some burdens over the South Korea-US joint firepower drills being held for the first time in six years and in the strongest manner,” Moon said. Pyongyang may test a solid-propellant ICBM, a submarine-launched ballistic missile or short-range ballistic weapons, he added.