As the White House prepares for what could be the first meeting between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader, the U.S. and South Korean militaries will carry out exercises that Pyongyang has long called provocative but now appears to accept.
South Korean national security adviser Chung Eui-yong announced Thursday at the White House that in addition to President Donald Trump agreeing to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by May, Kim pledged that North Korea will refrain from additional nuclear or missile tests and "understands that the routine joint military exercises between the Republic of Korea and the United States must continue."
The latter acknowledgment marked a significant shift for the Kim regime. Each spring, the United States and South Korea launch military exercises known as Foal Eagle and Key Resolve, and the Kim regime has typically reacted angrily. The exercises there are seen as preparation for an attack on Pyongyang, while the South Koreans and Americans characterize them as defensive in nature.
Last year, North Korea fired four ballistic missiles toward Japan in what was widely seen as a response to the exercises. The North Korean military already had warned that if a single shell fell in waters near the Korean Peninsula, it would immediately launch "merciless" counteractions.
The exercises are believed to include rehearsals of what is known as OPLAN 5015, in which U.S. and South Korean forces would carry out "decapitation" strikes aimed at killing Kim and other senior members of his regime. North Korean hackers stole a trove of classified data in 2016, including information about the strikes, a South Korean lawmaker announced last year.
Foal Eagle began last year on March 3, with about 3,600 U.S. troops deploying to South Korea to join others among the 28,500 U.S. forces based there to participate in the exercises, according to U.S. Pacific Command. The exercises included the new F-35B Joint Strike Fighter among a fleet of aircraft, the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and other Navy ships, and ground forces.
The exercise this year is expected to begin at the end of the month - a delay that South Korea requested to work around the now-concluded Winter Olympics and the Winter Paralympics, which began Friday. The operation includes live exercises and a variety of war games involving computer simulations.
The exercises are bookended by another set of computer-simulated exercises late each summer known as Ulchi Freedom Guardian. Those exercises focus on defending South Korea from attack.