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US-South Korea Joint Military Drills Kick Off After Delay

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The US and South Korea on Sunday kicked off their annual joint military exercises which had been postponed until after the Winter Olympics, South Korean Defense Ministry sources said. About 11,500 U.S. and 300,000 South Korean soldiers will take part in the drill that was originally set for March. The start of the drills comes around a week after Kim made a surprise visit to Beijing where he held his first summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The exercises, which both countries stress are defense in nature, take place as both Seoul and Washington prepare for separate summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un amid a sudden diplomatic thaw on the Korean peninsula.

According to Reuters, the "Foal Eagle" field exercise, which usually involves combined ground, air, naval and special operations troops, will continue for a month. The computer-simulated command-post "Key Resolve" exercise will get under way later in the month and last two weeks, which means they are going to overlap with a historic summit between North Korea’s leader Kim Jon-un and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in on April 27.

Furthermore, in a sign of deescalation of tensions, while both the South Korean Defense Ministry and the U.S. Department of Defense said last month that the exercises would be roughly the size of those in previous years, local media reported that the joint drills this year will be shorter than originally planned, and that a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier will not take part.

The annual joint exercises, which have taken place since 1997, ran for two months in 2017 but have been reduced to just one month this year, according to Yonhap. One of the highlights of this year’s Foal Eagle maneuvers will be the involvement of the USS ‘Wasp’ amphibious-assault ship, which has recently been spotted operating off the coast of Okinawa. The Japanese island plays a strategic role for US deployment in the region and hosts some 26,000 US troops.

According to the US Navy, the warship will be carrying fifth-generation F-35B stealth fighter jets. The US Navy, which has not commented on the potential involvement of the 844ft-long “quasi” aircraft carrier in the drills, recently announced a first successful landing of an F-35B on the USS ‘Wasp’ in the Pacific, describing it as “one of the most significant leaps in warfighting capability for the Navy-Marine Corps team in our lifetime.”

According to Yonhap, the USS ‘Bonhomme Richard,’ another Wasp-class amphibious-assault ship, will also participate in the maneuvers. An amphibious landing exercise codenamed SsangYong, or “Double Dragon,” will be held through April 8.

While North Korea has long opposed both exercises as "preparations for invasion", during a meeting last month, the country's leader Kim told South Korean officials in Pyongyang that he understands Seoul's stance that it is hard to postpone the military drills again or suspend them. 

Kim is scheduled to hold a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae In on April 27 and is expected to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump possibly by the end of May.

The drills which were initially scheduled to be launched in late February or early March, were postponed because of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, which concluded on March 18 and marked the beginning of a thaw in relations between the two Koreas.

The relatively low-key exercises will finish just ahead of the widely anticipated talks between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jon-un. The much-hyped meeting, whose date has yet to be set, is expected to take place by May.

Pyongyang has repeatedly denounced US-South Korean joint maneuvers on its doorstep as a provocation and a rehearsal for invasion. The US military, however, insists that the planned exercises are “defense-oriented” and that “there is no reason for North Korea to view them as provocation.” North Korea was notified of the drills in advance through the United Nations Command, the Pentagon said one week ago.

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