SEOUL — U.S. and South Korean troops are preparing for their annual joint war games in coming weeks, an official said Jan. 25, despite the sensitive power transition underway in North Korea.
The two countries “are preparing for the Key Resolve exercise,” a U.S. military spokesman told AFP, adding the schedule was not finalized.
South Korea’s defense ministry declined to comment. Media reports said the exercises — which the North blasts as warmongering — would go ahead as scheduled.
Pyongyang last year threatened a military response to the fortnight-long Key Resolve computerized drill, which is normally followed by a joint air, ground and naval training exercise known as Foal Eagle lasting several weeks.
The exercises last year involved 12,300 U.S. troops and some 200,000 South Korean service members, including reservists. They passed off without incident.
Seoul and Washington, which bases 28,500 troops in the South, say the drills are defensive and routine but the North habitually terms them a rehearsal for invasion.
It has taken a hostile tone with the South since its leader Kim Jong-Il died Dec. 17 and was replaced by his youngest son Jong-Un.
The new leader has been appointed armed forces chief and has visited several units in an apparent attempt to burnish his military credentials.
This year’s Key Resolve will start Feb. 27, the Korea JoongAng Daily newspaper reported.
“It’s true that we have weighed whether we should go ahead with the exercise or not after North Korean leader Kim’s death at the end of last year,” an unidentified senior Seoul official was quoted as saying.
“But the North’s wintertime drills are continuing and the military threats still persist, so we’ve decided to go ahead with our military exercise as scheduled.”
North Korea’s air force has conducted more training than normal this winter despite Kim’s death, Yonhap news agency said on Tuesday.
On Jan. 25 Yonhap also quoted sources as saying Key Resolve would start Feb. 27 and continue for two weeks.
Pyongyang’s new regime has vowed retaliation against Seoul for alleged disrespect during the mourning period for its late leader.
Cross-border tensions have been high since the South accused the North of torpedoing a warship with the loss of 46 lives in March 2010.
The North denied involvement but eight months later shelled a border island and killed four South Koreans.