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South Korean and US Troops to Begin Major Exercises Next Week

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South Korean and US Troops to Begin Major Exercises Next Week

Following expanded weapons tests by North Korea, this year’s Freedom Shield exercise will involve 48 field exercises, double the number conducted last year.

South Korean and US Troops to Begin Major Exercises Next Week

A High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) crew sets up during a training mission in support of Freedom Shield 23 at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea, Mar. 18, 2023.

Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Trevor Gordnier

South Korean and U.S. troops will begin their expanded annual military drills next week in response to North Korea’s evolving nuclear threats, the two countries said Wednesday, a move that will likely enrage North Korea because it views the allies’ joint training as an invasion rehearsal.

In recent months, North Korea has inflamed animosities on the Korean Peninsula with fiery rhetoric and continued missile tests. While it’s unlikely for North Korea to launch full-blown attacks against South Korea and the United States, observers say the North could still stage limited provocations along the tense border with South Korea.

On Wednesday, the South Korea and U.S. militaries jointly announced that the allies will conduct the Freedom Shield exercise, a computer-simulated command post training, and a variety of separate field training, from March 4-14.

Col. Lee Sung-Jun, a spokesperson for South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that the allies’ drills are designed to bolster their joint capabilities to prevent North Korea from using its nuclear weapons. He said the allies are to carry out 48 field exercises this spring, twice the number conducted last year, and that this year’s drills would involve air assault, live-firing, and bombing training.

“Our military is ready to punish North Korea immediately, strongly and to the end in the event of its provocation, and we’ll further strengthen our firm readiness through the upcoming drills,” Lee said.

Col. Isaac L. Taylor, a spokesperson for the U.S. military, said the allies’ exercises have been defensive in nature and that there is solid evidence that “a high readiness rate” helps ensure deterrence.

North Korea didn’t immediately respond to the drills’ announcement. North Korea has reacted to previous major South Korea-U.S. military drills with its own missile tests.

North Korea has sharply intensified its weapons testing activities since 2022 in part of its efforts to expand its nuclear and missile arsenals. This year, the North already conducted six rounds of missile tests – five of them reportedly involving cruise missiles – and other weapons launches.

Lee, the South Korean military spokesperson, said that the upcoming South Korea-U.S. drills would involve training to detect and shoot down North Korean cruise missiles. Analysts say North Korea would likely use cruise missiles to attack incoming U.S. warships in the event of a conflict, as well as U.S. military installations in Japan. The North’s weapons tests in 2022 and 2023 largely focused on ballistic weapons systems.

Experts say North Korea believes a bigger weapons arsenal would allow it to pressure the United States and South Korea more effectively to make concessions like sanctions relief when diplomacy resumes. They expect North Korea to ramp up its testing activities and other provocations this year as both the U.S. and South Korea head into major elections.

Seoul and Washington have responded to the North’s testing spree with expansions of their bilateral military drills and trilateral exercises involving Japan. U.S. and South Korean officials have repeatedly warned that any nuclear attack by North Korea against them would spell the end of the North’s government led by Kim Jong Un.

In a telephone call earlier Wednesday, South Korean Defense Minister Shin Won-sik and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin condemned North Korea’s missile tests and reaffirmed the need to maintain an overwhelming joint defense posture, according to the South Korean Defense Ministry. The Pentagon said Austin reaffirmed the ironclad U.S. extended deterrence commitment to the defense of South Korea.