|SLUG: 5-47305 Korea/joint exercises||DATE:||NOTE NUMBER:|
TITLE=KOREA / JOINT EXERCISES
INTRO: In South Korea, U-S and South Korean forces are wrapping up the world's largest annual military exercises with hardly a mention in the local media. Both sides imposed an unprecedented ban on media coverage this year in deference to diplomatic efforts aimed at improving ties with communist North Korea. But as VOA's Alisha Ryu reports from Seoul, the decision to downplay the drills is coming under strong criticism from some South Korean defense experts.
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The military exercises, called Foal Eagle, are conducted every year to test the readiness of the combined forces in case of a North Korean attack. The United States - allied with South Korea - fought against the invading Northern army in the Korean War that ended in 1953 in an armed truce, not a peace treaty. With North and South Korea still technically at war, the United States continues to keep tens of thousands of troops on the peninsula as support for South Korean forces.
But U-S military officials admit that the historic June meeting between the leaders of North and South Korea, and a series of subsequent high-level meetings in Washington and Pyongyang, have persuaded the United States and South Korea to refrain from showcasing this year's exercises. The exercises began October 25th, one day after Secretary of State Madeleine Albright ended her historic trip to Pyongyang as the highest-level U-S official ever to visit the country.
Colonel Samuel Taylor is the army spokesman for the combined U-S - ROK (Republic of Korea and pronounced Rock) forces.
/// TAYLOR ACT ONE///
It is a fact that we are executing Foal Eagle differently this year from a media perspective. Secretary of State Albright just visited North Korea. The president of the United States is considering visiting North Korea. All of the things taking place toward reconciliation has made this a time in which we want to be very careful about all the things we do. One of the things we have tried to avoid is having images of us preparing for what amounts to warfare during this time.
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But policy and defense expert Lee Jung-hoon at Yonsei University in Seoul says he believes such concessions are premature given the still-tense military situation on the Korean peninsula.
/// LEE ACT ///
North Koreans have not made any effort whatsoever to reduce their weapons of mass destruction, particularly their chemical weapons. They have not done anything to pull back their forward-deployed forces. Nearly 70 percent of North Korean forces are still deployed within 100 kilometers of the Demilitarized Zone. So, unless we move forward into those areas, we may have to doubt the genuineness of North Korea.
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North Korea has routinely denounced the military exercises as a rehearsal for an invasion. Despite the flurry of diplomacy and allied efforts not to provoke the North, Pyongyang accused the United States and South Korea of staging this year's drills as a continuation of what it called "warlike policies toward North Korea." When two U-S fighter jets participating in a training mission inadvertently strayed into North Korean airspace last Friday, the North Korean state media called the incursion a deliberate and premeditated move of the United States to derail the peace process.
Policy analyst Paik Jin-hyun at Seoul University says the U-S/South Korean alliance is facing a major dilemma: how to balance the need to continue delicate negotiations with the North with the need to not only remain militarily committed but ready to fight North Korean forces.
Mr. Paik worries that in the end, compromises may be made that will severely affect South Korea's national security.
/// PAIK ACT ///
I think this low-key attitude toward the military exercises, which is by the way entirely defensive and routine, is one of the biggest disappointments to many South Koreans, including myself. Obviously, relations between North and South Korea have improved. There is no question about that. But we still are not sure of North Korea's intentions. Although this was not widely reported in South Korean newspapers, the North staged the biggest military exercises in 10 years this summer. This exercise was well-supplied and well-organized. This is a situation that worries many people concerned about national security.
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Not everyone in South Korea agrees with Mr. Paik and Mr. Lee's assessment of the North Korean threat.
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A small but growing minority believe the North's recent peace overtures to the South and to the West are genuine. They have been increasingly vocal in calling for an immediate U-S troop withdrawal. Even South Korea's defense minister Cho Seong Tae hinted last week that the government's softer-line approach with regard to North Korea could dictate a change in the Korean-American alliance at a later time.
But U-S Army Colonel Samuel Taylor insists the alliance is stronger than ever. He denies recent media reports that the South Koreans were less enthusiastic about participating in the exercises this year than in previous years.
/// SECOND TAYLOR ACT ///
They support us 100 percent in terms of training. They themselves continue to train vigorously. What they are backing away from is publicizing it and sending out to the world images of that training. But they continue to train just as they always have.
/// END ACT ///
He says it is highly unlikely that any movement toward loosening the military alliance will happen unless there is a substantial reduction in North Korean forces and weapons. And that, say most experts, is not likely to happen any time soon. (Signed)
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