A US Air Force F-16 fighter jet, bottom, lands at the Osan U.S. Air Base in Pyeongtaek, ROK, March 20, 2018. (HONG GI-WON / YONHAP VIA)
SEOUL/WASHINGTON - The United States and the Republic of Korea (ROK) will resume joint military drills next month, Seoul and Washington said on Tuesday, exercises that will go ahead despite US President Donald Trump's planned meeting with Kim Jong-un, leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK).
Seoul and Washington said in January they would delay the annual exercises until after the Winter Olympics and Paralympics held in the ROK last month, helping to create conditions for a resumption of talks between the two Koreas.
The reclusive DPRK routinely denounces the drills as preparation for war.
The ROK and US militaries usually stage the two drills in March for about two months but the period of this year's field exercise was cut by half, mainly due to the Olympics
ROK military official
The Foal Eagle field exercise is scheduled to begin on April 1 and go on for a month, while the computer-simulated Key Resolve will be held for two weeks starting in mid-April, a ROK military official told reporters in Seoul on Tuesday.
There has been a flurry of diplomatic activity across Asia, the United States and Europe since the DPRK sent delegations to the Winter Olympics, moves that culminated in DPRK's planned summits with the ROK and with the United States.
The ROK and US militaries usually stage the two drills in March for about two months but the period of this year's field exercise was cut by half, mainly due to the Olympics, said the ROK official, who asked not to be identified.
The exercises will be of a "scale similar to that of the previous years" and are meant "to improve our readiness against various North Korean threats", the official said. The DPRK is also referred to as North Korea.
The DPRK is pursuing nuclear and missile programmes in defiance of UN Security Council sanctions and has made no secret of its plans to develop a missile capable of reaching the US mainland.
Such plans, and the exchange of insults between Kim and Trump, had led to increased fears of confrontation on the Korean peninsula in recent months before the diplomatic contacts.
The Pentagon said the DPRK military had been notified about the schedule for the drills by the United Nations Command.
"Our combined exercises are defence-oriented and there is no reason for the DPRK to view them as a provocation," Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Logan said in a statement.
The ROK official said consultations were underway over whether US strategic assets such as nuclear-powered aircraft carriers or bombers would be deployed for the drills.
Logan said the two joint drills would involve about 23,700 US troops and 300,000 ROK forces.
He said they were not in response to any specific DPRK actions or the current situation on the Korean peninsula.
The Key Resolve simulated exercises would likely overlap with a summit between the two Koreas, planned for late April, the ROK official said.
In this March 25, 2015, file photo, US Army soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division's 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team and ROK soldiers take their position during a demonstration of the combined arms live-fire exercise as a part of the annual joint military exercise Foal Eagle between the ROK and the United States at the Rodriquez Multi-Purpose Range Complex in Pocheon, north of Seoul, ROK. (LEE JIN-MAN / AP)
After the postponement of the drills was announced in January, Pyongyang agreed to hold the first official talks with Seoul in more than two years and then sent athletes and officials to the Winter Olympics.
Those talks led to a visit this month by a ROK delegation to Pyongyang for a meeting with the DPRK leader. Delegation leader Chung Eui-yong, ROK's national security adviser, said Kim committed to denuclearisation and expressed eagerness to meet Trump as soon as possible, an offer the US president quickly accepted.
Chung said Kim was expected to meet ROK President Moon Jae-in in April before meeting Trump by the end of May.
The two Koreas held working-level talks on Tuesday at the border village of Panmunjom over Seoul's plan to send an artistic troupe for a concert in Pyongyang.
Despite the DPRK's denunciation of past drills, Chung said Kim understood that the allies must continue their "routine" joint military exercises.
Pyongyang has not confirmed the exchange and threatened earlier this month to take "counteraction" if the United States and the ROK went ahead with the exercises.
The joint drills ran from March 1-April 30 in 2017 and included the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier. A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said no US aircraft carriers would take part this year, which he said was according to plan and not related to the political situation.