SEOUL: South Korea launched a military drill on Monday with the United States (US) against a simulated North Korean invasion, even as a recent easing of tensions between Seoul and Pyongyang gathered momentum.
Although the annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian drill is largely played out on computers, it involves more than 80,000 South Korean and US troops and has repeatedly been condemned by Pyongyang as a provocative war rehearsal.
This year, however, the criticism from the North has been relatively muted as both Koreas have focused on reopening a joint industrial zone that was closed in April at the height of a surge in military tensions on the divided peninsula.
After seven rounds of negotiations, the two rivals agreed last week on a framework for resuming operations at the Kaesong zone, which is an important hard currency earner for the impoverished North.
Building on that breakthrough, South Korean President Park Geun-Hye urged Pyongyang to “open its heart” and resume reunions—suspended three years ago—for families separated since the 1950-53 war.
The sudden flurry of proposals and positive responses come just three months after the two Koreas found themselves on a virtual war footing with the North hurling threats of pre-emptive nuclear strikes.
The crisis in April and May was triggered by the North’s third nuclear test in February and fanned by a series of large-scale South Korea-US military exercises.
Monday’s defensive 10-day joint drill is relatively low key, with participating troops largely confined to barracks and no high-visibility land, sea or air manoeuvres.
Last month, the North’s ruling-party newspaper Rodong Sinmun had warned that going ahead with the exercise could bring the peninsula “to the brink of war.”
But since then it has said little and there has been no repeat of the bellicose rhetoric that was thrown at joint drills earlier this year.
Presiding over a meeting of her National Security Council, President Park stressed that Seoul could never afford to let its guard down.
“No matter how peaceful things are, a crisis would come if we forget about war,” her spokeswoman quoted Park as saying.
“It is very important to ensure firm security preparedness in any circumstances,” Park said.