REPORTING FROM SEOUL -- Ready to test the diplomacy waters of North Korea’s new regime, the militaries of the U.S. and South Korea will hold their annual joint exercise next month, a drill that Pyongyang has previously called a provocative act, the South Korean press reported Wednesday.
The Key Resolve exercise will begin Feb. 27 and last two weeks, according to Seoul’s JoonAng Ilbo newspaper, quoting unnamed South Korean foreign affairs and security officials.
The exercises will be the first such event since the death in December of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. The regime’s strongman has been succeeded by his untested youngest son, 28-year-old Kim Jong Un, who reports say is trying to shore up his support among the nation's military brass.
“We have weighed whether we should go ahead with the exercise or not after North Korean leader Kim’s death at the end of last year,” a South Korean official told the newspaper, suggesting that North Korea planned to hold its own exercises. “The North’s wintertime drills are continuing and the military threats still persist, so we’ve decided to go ahead with our military exercise as scheduled.”
Officials say the military leaders from both nations are fine-tuning such details as the number of troops that will take part as well as the drill scenario. In 2011, more than 200,000 South Korean troops and some 12,800 U.S. forces participated in the exercise, which included the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan.
The little-known Kim Jong Un is still considered a diplomatic wild card and officials are not sure whether he will use the drills as an excuse to attack South Korea.
Both Washington and Seoul are wary that Pyongyang will continue its “military-first” policy that in 2010 included two deadly attacks on South Korea, including the sinking of a southern patrol ship and the shelling of a South Korean island that followed a similar military drill.
This month, Chairman of the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff Jung Seung-jo will visit the U.S. to sign the directive detailing the operational tactics to be used by both countries in the case of a North Korean attack. The counter-provocation strategy was devised after the North Korean military forces shelled the South’s Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010.
The two allies have another drill planned for March, which has already drawn fierce protests from North Korea, the JongAng Ilbo reported. The massive landing drill will be the largest since the Team Spirit exercise in 1989. Pyongyang has called the springtime drills a “war game for a northward invasion.”
Pyongyang routinely uses bellicose language to respond to South Korea’s combat readiness drills. Last summer, when the U.S. and Seoul conducted an exercise that involved 530,000 forces from both sides, Pyongyang blasted the 10-day exercise as “an undisguised military threat” and a “wanton challenge to peace” that threatens the status-quo on the already tense Korean Peninsula.
In recent years, such drills have shifted more responsibility from the two nations’ joint command to South Korean military chiefs, to prepare for the handover of wartime operational authority in 2015.
-- John M. Glionna
Photo: U.S. Gen. James D. Thurman, left, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, escorted by South Korean army Gen. Jung Seung-jo, arrive at the Ministry of Defense in Seoul after the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Credit: YNA / EPA