Joint military exercises between US and South Korean forces began Monday with computer-simulated combat scenarios.
The annual war games, called Ulchi Freedom Guardian, will continue until Aug. 31 and will involve about 17,500 US forces, 3,000 of which have traveled to the South Korea for the exercise, according to a Department of Defense release. 50,000 ROK forces are participating, according to the New York Times.
Defense Secretary James Mattis said the exercise is defensive in nature.
“This right now is an exercise to make certain that we’re ready to defend South Korea and our allies over there,” he told reporters Sunday on his way to Jordan for the first leg of a multi-nation trip.
Ulchi Freedom also involves international partners from Australia, Canada, Columbia, Denmark, New Zealand, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. Training scenarios will focus on a potential war with North Korea, including response to the possible use of nuclear weapons. “Because of the specific circumstance,” Mattis said, “we want it to be a command post-heavy, command post exercise.”
Pyongyang complained that the exercises amounted to preparations for an invasion of the North. “This is aimed to ignite a nuclear war on the Korean peninsula at any cost,” North Korea’s state-run KCNA news agency said on Monday, according to Reuters. “The situation on the Korean peninsula has plunged into a critical phase due to the reckless north-targeted war racket of the war maniacs.”
Mattis said the US and ROK have planned the exercises to exhibit maximal transparency and prevent misunderstanding, and that their structure and scheduling had nothing to do with the recent escalation in rhetoric between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. “It’s calculated to not allow for miscalculation,” Mattis said.
In the past, North Korea has responded to Ulchi Freedom with shows of force, including test-launching a ballistic missile. In the official announcement of the start of Ulchi Freedom, the DOD said the purpose of the exercise is “to enhance readiness, protect the region, and maintain stability on the Korean peninsula.”