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S. Korea, US could suspend again joint drills: sources

Joint military exercises (Yonhap)
Joint military exercises (Yonhap)

South Korea and the United States could scale back their annual joint military exercises in August over coronavirus concerns or suspend them altogether, sources said Saturday.

The pandemic has already forced the two countries to cancel drills scheduled for March.

“While both sides share the understanding the August drills should be conducted, things are flexible given the unabating coronavirus pandemic,” a Defense Ministry official said.

The drills would require a great number of American troops, including members of the US reserve forces who have other jobs.

The virus situation in the US is grave, with nearly 70,000 new infections reported Saturday, a record increase for a single day. The US has the largest tallies of coronavirus cases and deaths so far, with nearly 1 out of every 100 Americans infected.

“At this point, with coronavirus infections are showing no sign of completely dissipating and the possibility of talks with North Korea still a reality it makes sense to halt any drills for at least several months.”

The August drills carry exceptional weight this year because Seoul hoped to test stage two of a three-phase plan to take over wartime operational control from Washington, for the first time since the onset of the 1950-53 Korean War.

But the two allies remain at odds over whether to test the handover program this year, with US commander Gen. Robert Abrams unequivocally highlighting the need to test joint defense readiness rather than the program.

The US was reportedly pressing hard on the regular drills, saying the two sides had already missed out on the full-scale drills in March and that testing the handover scheme would involve inviting additional American military personnel here, complicating quarantine protocols upon entry.

The Moon Jae-in government is pushing to wrap up the handover by 2022 as President Moon previously pledged to do so before he leaves office in May that year. To make that happen, the government would have to undertake stage two in August and proceed to the final stage in 2021.

The prospect of nuclear talks between the US and North Korea is another factor that could derail the joint drills.

Pyongyang recently said Washington had to withdraw its anti-North Korea policy as a condition for the resumption of dialogue.

Some North Korea analysts said the latest remarks referred to the joint military drills between Seoul and Washington.

“The North means two things here: Suspend the joint drills and stop bringing in ammunition and other war supplies,” said Cho Seong-ryoul, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Strategy, a think tank under Seoul’s spy agency.

Others experts said Pyongyang was essentially saying no to the talks by raising the price of admission, hoping to get the upper hand and pin the blame on Washington later.

“At this point, with coronavirus infections showing no sign of completely dissipating and the possibility of talks with North Korea (being) still a reality, it makes sense to halt for at least several months any drills,” said Harry J. Kazianis, senior director of the Korean Studies at the Washington-based Center for the National Interest.

Defense chiefs of South Korea and the US were set to talk last month in a teleconference, but have yet to agree on a date.

With only a month left before the drills, the two allies are expected to finalize the timeline of their drills by this month at the latest.

By Choi Si-young (