A South Korean general is set to lead joint military drills with the U.S. in August 2019 to test Seoul's readiness for wartime OPCON transfer, this according to ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The talks of OPCON transfer started over a decade ago-- but the transition effort has been hampered amid Pyeongyang's increased military threats. However, as the mood on the peninsula improved, the two allies have steadily and systematically been moving forward with the transfer.
President Moon Jae-in called on South Korea to beef up its self-defense capabilities-- while still pursuing peace in the region. During a 28 May 2019 National Security Council meeting to discuss the four-day inaugural civilian-military exercises, the Ulchi Taegeuk drills, President Moon said there should be no crack in national security despite the ongoing peace drive. "As long as we have the right to choose, the journey toward peace will not be stopped. No matter the difficulties, a new era on the Korean Peninsula will certainly open up." The South Korean leader also expressed gratitude to his North Korean and U.S. counterparts for easing military tensions in the region.
The president touched on the transfer of wartime operational control, or OPCON from Washington to Seoul, saying that the ongoing Ulchi Taegeuk drills should help prep the nation for when Seoul takes over the primary leadership role. "The inaugural military drills combining the existing Ulchi and Taegeuk command post exercises, should be used as a chance to solidify self-reliant defense capabilities, as well as prepare for the transition of OPCON." Apart from military-related readiness, the president also said the civilian-government exercise reflects his administration's broader spectrum on national security, including non-military threats like natural disasters, diseases and terrorism.
The Ulchi Taegeuk exercise was launched 27 May 2019 among civilians, government officials and armed service members to better address various potential contingencies such as natural disasters and terrorist attacks. Choi Hyun-soo, defense ministry spokesperson, told a press briefing that the Ulchi Taegeuk drill, which is defensive in nature, would continue to 30 May 2019.
The inaugural civilian-military exercise would involve about 480,000 civilians, government officials and soldiers from some 4,000 administrative and public institutions, security-relevant civilian companies, and the military. Choi said the South Korean military had faithfully conducted the military agreement with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), which was signed by defense chiefs of the two Koreas during the third summit in September 2018 in Pyongyang between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and top DPRK leader Kim Jong Un. Under the military agreement, the two Koreas agreed to stop all hostile acts near border areas by setting up buffer zones on the ground, in the air and the waters.
The Ulchi Taegeuk exercise replaced the summertime South Korea-U.S. joint war game, codenamed Ulchi Freedom Guardian (UFG), to support the peace process on the Korean Peninsula. It combines the South Korean military's Taegeuk command post exercise and the government's Ulchi exercise, which was part of the UFG in the past. The new civilian-military exercise was aimed to enhance the country's capability to tackle safety and security threats such as natural disasters and terrorist attacks as well as security crisis.
Earlier in 2019, the combined forces of South Korea and the United States replaced the joint springtime war games, codenamed Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises, with the Dong Maeng command post exercise in March. The DPRK has denounced the South Korea-U.S. military drills as a dress rehearsal for northward invasion.
South Korea's new civilian-military exercise was covered by North Korea’s state media channels. The Korean Central News Agency(KCNA) and the Rodong Sinmun, the official paper of the North's Workers' Party, on 28 May 2019 issued reports introducing details of the exercise, including the schedule and number of participants. The outlets described the Ulchi Taeguk exercise as “provocative,” but did not expand on direct criticism of the exercise further.
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