Senior Democratic Party member calls for postponement of S. Korea-US joint military exercises

Posted on : 2020-07-10 18:07 KST Modified on : 2020-07-10 18:07 KST
Defense Ministry say exercises should proceed as planned for OPCON transfer
Kim Tae-nyeon, floor leader of the Democratic Party, speaks during a National Assembly policy meeting on July 9. (Kang Chang-kwang, staff photographer)
Kim Tae-nyeon, floor leader of the Democratic Party, speaks during a National Assembly policy meeting on July 9. (Kang Chang-kwang, staff photographer)

A senior member of South Korea’s ruling Democratic Party has called for the postponement of South Korea-US joint military exercises scheduled for the end of August. The lawmaker pointed out that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has created uncertainty about the scale and method of the exercises, as well as whether they will be held at all, and said another reason to seriously consider postponing the exercises is in order to improve inter-Korean relations.

“Considering that delaying South Korea-US military exercises in 2017 created an opportunity to improve inter-Korean relations, it may be necessary to seriously consider rescheduling next months’ exercises,” said Cho Jeong-sik, chairperson of the Democratic Party’s policy committee, during a committee meeting at the National Assembly on July 9.

Cho was referring to how South Korean President Moon Jae-in persuaded the US to postpone joint military exercises until after the Pyongchang Winter Olympics, held in February 2018, to ensure the success of the Olympics. North Korea responded by sending a delegation to the Olympics that included Kim Yo-jong, first deputy director of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, and by actively engaging in dialogue.

Cho’s remarks appear to reflect increasing hopes that inter-Korean relations will be repaired after a recent reshuffle of South Korea’s foreign policy and security lineup (including the unification minister and the directors of the National Security Office and the National Intelligence Service) and US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun’s visit to South Korea.

But Cho apparently didn’t run his idea about rescheduling the joint exercises by relevant government ministries, such as the Ministry of National Defense (MND). A source in the military didn’t place much weight on Cho’s remarks. “I’m told that the ruling party hasn’t asked our opinion about adjusting the joint exercises or even asked to discuss that. I presume that [Cho] expressed this opinion with the hope of making an issue of it,” the source said.

The MND’s position is that the joint exercises at the end of August should proceed as normal. “If President Moon wants to complete the wartime OCPON [operational control] transfer within his term, which is one of his campaign pledges, the OPCON transfer assessment exercises need to be held as planned,” an MND official said.

Last year, South Korea and the US assessed the initial operational capability (IOC) of their future joint command. They plan to move ahead with the OPCON transfer after completing the full operational capability (FOC) assessment this year and the full mission capability (FMC) assessment next year. Skipping the exercises this August is likely to disrupt the OPCON transfer schedule, military officials say.

COVID-19 another factor that could impact the exercises

The problem is that the COVID-19 crisis shows no signs of abating. Unless the coronavirus can be brought under control, the additional US servicemembers who are supposed to join the exercises might not be allowed to enter the country. Potential outcomes, depending on how events play out, are completely canceling the exercises, which is what happened this past March, or reducing the number of the participating troops.

But in the case of a reduction, military officials are concerned, the exercises might not be adequate to mount a full OPCON transfer assessment. Furthermore, the US apparently holds that, if the exercises are reduced in scale, they should be focused on assessing joint defense readiness rather than the OPCON transfer.

“We’re preparing for the exercises on the assumption that they’ll be carried out normally at the end of August as planned, but we’re also monitoring the situation, including the impact of COVID-19,” the MND official said.

By Park Byong-su, senior staff writer, and Seo Young-ji, staff reporter

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