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Joint drills pose a dilemma for Moon’s gov’t

Jan 24,2020
Seoul is in a dilemma over annual military exercises with Washington, trying to balance diplomacy with Pyongyang while staying on track for the transfer of wartime operational control (Opcon).

President Moon Jae-in pledged since he took office in 2017 that the transfer of Opcon from Washington to Seoul should take place within his five-year term, and to carry this out, stable and regular joint military drills need to be conducted.

However, those combined military exercises don’t help denuclearization negotiations with Pyongyang. Major Seoul-Washington exercises have been postponed, suspended or scaled down for the sake of diplomacy with the North since early 2018.

Seoul’s Ministry of National Defense gave a briefing to Moon on Tuesday at the Gyeryongdae military complex in South Chungcheong on its comprehensive policy plan for this year.

On Tuesday, the Defense Ministry revealed that Seoul and Washington will be modifying their springtime combined exercises in the spirit of supporting diplomatic efforts to denuclearize North Korea.

The ministry said that command post exercises (CPX) between Seoul and Washington will be held in the first and second half of the year and regiment-level field maneuvering exercises will be held separately, similar to last year.

The computer-simulated CPX drills were conducted twice in 2019, and the initial operational capability of the South Korean military, the first stage in assessing Seoul’s readiness to assume wartime operational control, was evaluated in the exercise conducted in the second half of the year. Seoul’s Defense Ministry plans to evaluate the exercise in the second half of this year for the military’s full operational capability (FOC), the second stage of evaluation in the Opcon transfer.

The weapons and assets to be deployed for the field training exercises this year are also expected to be on a similar scale to last year. Drills that are battalion-level and below and overseas training will be conducted as before.

“We can maintain the existing combined defense posture through individual training and show results even without the large-scale combined exercises,” a South Korean military official said. “These are measures to reduce any backlash from North Korea and to support diplomatic efforts.”

Pyongyang condemns the joint exercises, which it sees as a rehearsal for the invasion of North Korea. U.S. President Donald Trump acknowledged such concerns and called the joint war games “expensive” and “provocative” after his first summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on June 12, 2018, in Singapore.

However, some military officials are concerned about the scaling down or suspension of combined exercises and whether this will ultimately lead to a delay in the Opcon transfer.

Seoul has aimed to regain wartime operation control from Washington by 2022, the year that Moon’s five-year term ends.

But the South Korean military’s readiness to assume wartime operational control is dependent on the successful results of combined exercises with the United States.

In order to keep with this target, it will have to receive the FOC certification this year and enter the third and last stage of assessment, full mission capability, by next year.

A military official said, “If there are any setbacks in the combined post exercise in the first half of this year, this could affect the CPX in the second half of the year. For a seamless operational control transfer, we need proper combined exercises.”

South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo likewise said last month that successfully completing the FOC assessment this year was the most important task of the military for 2020 to prepare for Opcon.

Park Won-gon, a professor of international studies at Handong Global University, said, “South Korea and the United States will repeatedly lock horns on ways to reduce a backlash from North Korea without giving up on the results of combined exercises.”

The Defense Ministry’s budget for this year surpassed 50 trillion won ($42.7 billion) for the first time.

According to the ministry’s report, 6.2 trillion won is earmarked to counter weapons of mass destruction, some 1.1 trillion more than the previous year. The military plans to deploy more F-35A stealth fighter jets and Patriot air defense systems and will spend 1.97 trillion won on 230-millimeter multiple-rocket launchers and counter-battery radars.

BY LEE KEUN-PYUNG, SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]