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US, SKorea to Expand Military Drills   08/16 06:13

   The United States and South Korea will begin their biggest combined military 
training in years next week in the face of an increasingly aggressive North 
Korea, which has been ramping up weapons tests and threats of nuclear conflict 
against Seoul and Washington, the South Korean military said Tuesday.

   SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- The United States and South Korea will begin 
their biggest combined military training in years next week in the face of an 
increasingly aggressive North Korea, which has been ramping up weapons tests 
and threats of nuclear conflict against Seoul and Washington, the South Korean 
military said Tuesday.

   The allies' summertime drills, named Ulchi Freedom Shield, will take place 
from Aug. 22 to Sept. 1 in South Korea and include field exercises involving 
aircraft, warships, tanks and potentially tens of thousands of troops.

   The drills underscore Washington and Seoul's commitment to restore 
large-scale training after they canceled some of their regular drills and 
downsized others to computer simulations in recent years to create space for 
diplomacy with North Korea and because of COVID-19 concerns.

   The U.S. Department of Defense also said the U.S., South Korean and Japanese 
navies took part in missile warning and ballistic missile search and tracking 
exercises off the coast of Hawaii from Aug. 8 to 14, which it said were aimed 
at furthering three-way cooperation in the face of North Korean challenges.

   While the United States and South Korea describe their exercises as 
defensive, Ulchi Freedom Shield will almost surely draw an angry reaction from 
North Korea, which describes all allied training as invasion rehearsals and has 
used them to justify its nuclear weapons and missiles development.

   China, North Korea's main ally, expressed concern over the expansion of U.S. 
military exercises with its Asian allies, saying they could worsen tensions 
with the North. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin didn't offer 
a specific answer when asked whether Beijing believes the trilateral drills in 
Hawaii were in some way directed at China.

   "North Korea has repeatedly expressed its concern" over the joint drills, 
Wang said in a briefing in Beijing on Tuesday.

   "The negative impact of the military exercises on the situation on the 
Korean Peninsula is worth paying attention to. All parties should act prudently 
and stop any actions that may increase tension and confrontation and damage the 
mutual trust," he said.

   Before being shelved or downsized, the U.S. and South Korea held major joint 
exercises every spring and summer in South Korea. The spring ones had been 
highlighted by live-fire drills involving a broad range of land, air and sea 
assets and usually involved around 10,000 American and 200,000 Korean troops.

   Tens of thousands of allied troops participated in the summertime drills, 
which mainly consisted of computer simulations to hone joint decision making 
and planning, although South Korea's military has emphasized the revival of 
large-scale field training this time.

   Officials at Seoul's Defense Ministry and its Joint Chiefs of Staff did not 
comment on the number of U.S. and South Korean troops that will participate in 
Ulchi Freedom Shield.

   The drills, which will kick off along with a four-day South Korean civil 
defense training program led by government employees, will reportedly include 
exercises simulating joint attacks, front-line reinforcements of arms and fuel, 
and removals of weapons of mass destruction.

   The allies will also train for drone attacks and other new developments in 
warfare shown during Russia's war on Ukraine and practice joint 
military-civilian responses to attacks on seaports, airports and major 
industrial facilities such as semiconductor factories.

   "The biggest meaning of (Ulchi Freedom Shield) is that it normalizes the 
South Korea-U.S. combined exercises and field training, (contributing) to the 
rebuilding of the South Korea-U.S. alliance and the combined defense posture," 
Moon Hong-sik, a Defense Ministry spokesperson, said during a briefing.

   Some experts say North Korea may use the drills as an excuse to increase 

   North Korea has already warned of "deadly" retaliation against South Korea 
over its own COVID-19 outbreak, which it dubiously claims was caused by 
anti-North Korean propaganda leaflets and other objects flown across the border 
by balloons launched by southern activists. There are concerns that the North 
Korean threat, issued last week by the powerful sister of leader Kim Jong Un, 
portends a provocation which might include a nuclear or missile test or even 
border skirmishes.

   In an interview with Associated Press Television last month, Choe Jin, 
deputy director of a think tank run by North Korea's Foreign Ministry, said the 
United States and South Korea would face "unprecedented" security challenges if 
they don't drop their hostile military pressure campaign against North Korea, 
including joint military drills.

   Kim Jun-rak, spokesperson of South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the 
South Korean and U.S. militaries are maintaining a close watch on North Korean 
military activities and facilities.

   Animosity has increased on the Korean Peninsula since U.S.-North Korea 
nuclear negotiations derailed in early 2019 because of differences over a 
relaxation of crippling U.S.-led sanctions on North Korea in exchange for 
disarmament steps.

   Kim Jong Un has since declared North Korea will bolster its nuclear 
deterrent in the face of "gangster-like" U.S. pressure and halted all 
cooperation with South Korea. Exploiting a division in the U.N. Security 
Council over Russia's war on Ukraine, North Korea has dialed up its weapons 
testing to a record pace this year, conducting more than 30 ballistic launches. 
They included the country's first intercontinental ballistic missiles since 
2017 and tests of tactical systems designed to be armed with small battlefield 
nuclear weapons.

   Kim has punctuated the testing binge with repeated warnings that North Korea 
will proactively use its nuclear weapons in conflicts with South Korea and the 
United States, which experts say indicate an escalation in its nuclear doctrine 
that could cause greater concern for its neighbors.

   South Korea and U.S. officials say North Korea has been gearing up for its 
first nuclear test since September 2017, when it claimed to have developed a 
thermonuclear warhead to fit on its ICBMs.

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