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South Korea, US scale back drills over virus, N Korea diplomacy

The South Korean and US militaries are scaling back their annual
exercises this month due to the COVID-19 pandemic and to support
diplomacy on North Korea’s nuclear programme, officials said Sunday.

Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement that the allies
decided to start the nine-day drills on Monday after reviewing factors
like the status of the pandemic and diplomatic efforts to achieve
denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula.

It said the drills are defensive in nature and are mostly tabletop
exercises and simulations that won’t involve field training.

Last year, the allies cancelled their springtime drills after some of
their troops were infected with the coronavirus. In recent years, the
countries have also suspended or downsized many of their regular
training to create more space for the now-stalled US-led diplomatic
drive to convince North Korea to denuclearise in return for economic and
political incentives.

US-South Korea drills have been a major source of animosities on the
peninsula, with North Korea viewing them as invasion rehearsals and
responding with its own weapons tests. In January, North Korean leader
Kim Jong Un urged the US to withdraw its hostile policy and South Korea
to end drills with the US, warning the fate of their relations with
North Korea depends on how they behave.

Some experts have said Kim may resume high-profile missile tests and
raise tensions if he feels provoked by the upcoming drills, one of the
two major military exercises between Seoul and Washington along with
their summertime training.

The nuclear negotiations have been stalled for about two years since a
February 2019 summit between Kim and then President Donald Trump
collapsed due to wrangling over US-led sanctions on North Korea.

The government of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, which facilitated
the early part of the US-North Korea talks, has been calling for the
diplomacy’s restart and greater inter-Korean ties.

A South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff officer said that Seoul and
Washington decided to minimise the number of troops participating in
this month’s drills because of the pandemic.

The officer, who requested anonymity citing a department rule, said the
allies have been staging field exercises throughout the year to maintain
their readiness, rather than holding them intensively in certain
periods, in an apparent reference to the spring and summer drills.

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