US/Korea Kick-Off War Games Practicing Nuclear First Strike, Despite Threats From North

Military tensions are expected to come to a critical juncture on the Korean Peninsula this week, with South Korea and the United Sates beginning Monday their annual military exercise in the wake of a standoff between Washington and Pyongyang over the latter’s threat to launch missiles toward the US island of Guam.

The Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise, a computer-based military drill, is to kick off with some 50,000 South Korean and 17,500 US troops participating to simulate a war with North Korea. It will last until the end of the month. The number of US forces mobilized this year is markedly lower than last year’s 25,000.

This year’s exercise will focus on deterring North Korea from launching nuclear attacks and preparing the allies’ forces for a pre-emptive strike against it. The drill is reportedly based on Operational Plan 5015, which contains a scenario for carrying out a pre-emptive “decapitation” of North Korean leadership.

“If the enemy provokes, (our military) will retaliate resolutely and strongly to make it regret it bitterly,” Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff Air Force Gen. Jeong Kyeong-doo said during a change of command ceremony held at the Ministry of National Defense compound in Seoul. President Moon Jae-in attended the event.

South Korea`s marines participate in an amphibious landing drill near Ulleung Island in the East Sea. (Yonhap)

The exercise comes amid under Pyongyang’s looming threat to fire ballistic missiles to waters near the US island of Guam. Delaying a decision on the island attack plan last week, the North’s Kim Jong-un said he would “wait and see” how Washington reacts.

On Sunday, Pyongyang’s state-run media lashed out at the allies for holding the exercise, saying they were “adding fuel to the fire.” North Korea and the US have traded warlike rhetoric since the North succeeded in launching two intercontinental ballistic missiles in July.

“It would be a great mistake for the US if they have such a delusion that the war is somebody else’s business happening across the Pacific,” said North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun, the communist party’s official newspaper.

The command-post exercise UFG takes place every year at about this time and always elicits a reaction from Pyongyang. But the North’s harsh rhetoric heeds more attention this year, military experts said, since it is the first major drill since the North test-fired ICBMs.

In recent years, North Korea has also conducted military provocations around the time the UFG is held. Pyongyang launched a submarine-based ballistic missile last year and fired off antiaircraft guns at an anti-North Korea propaganda loudspeaker unit on the cross-border region in 2015.

The reduced number of US participants — which includes 3,000 reinforcements — has sparked speculation the allies might have scaled back the annual exercise in consideration of military tensions with North Korea. Korea’s Ministry of National Defense, however, has dismissed such a view, stressing the exercise would be played out on a level similar to that of last year.

“The number of US troops participating in the exercise can vary depending upon circumstances,” said a Seoul military official who declined to be identified, rejecting any link between the numbers and current tensions on the peninsula.

The US is also unlikely to send to the peninsula its strategic assets, such as nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, submarines and long-range fighter-jets carrying nuclear bombs, according to Seoul’s military officials. Those assets were not deployed here during the UFG in 2016.

US Pacific Commander Adm. Harry Harris(left) and South Korea`s Defense Minister Song Young-moo. Yonhap.

Meanwhile, a group of top US military leaders paid a visit to South Koreaand met with their counterparts in Seoul on Sunday to ease jitters over the US commitment to defend South Korea following the North’s successful ICBM tests.

Among them were Adm. Harry Harris, commander of the US Pacific Command, Air Force Gen. John Hyten, commander of the US Strategic Command. Samuel A. Greaves, director of the US Missile Defense Agency, is to visit later this week.

During his meeting with Defense Minister Song Young-moo, commander Harris pledged an “iron-clad” defense commitment to the South against North Korea’s “ever-evolving” nuclear and missile threats.

“In order to respond to any provocation from North Korea, it is more important than ever before to maintain a robust Korea-US alliance,” Song was quoted as saying by the Defense Ministry during the closed-door meeting.

Harris and other military leaders are expected to observe the UFG exercise and meet with other South Korean senior military officers this week. They will also hold a press conference with local reporters.

By Yeo Jun-suk (jasonyeo@heraldcorp.com)

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