US to continue military drills despite upcoming Winter Olympics in South Korea

With so much attention on the nuclear crisis in North Korea, the upcoming Winter Olympics in South Korea has been approaching quietly. Now, with less than eight weeks until the opening ceremony, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said the U.S. is committed to continuing its scheduled military drills in the region, despite recent requests by South Korean President Moon Jae-in to postpone the drills until competitions end in March.

South Korean and U.S. Marines ski down with a banner for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games during a military drill in Pyeongchang, South Korea, December 19, 2017. [REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji]

In an interview with NBC News on Tuesday, President Moon Jae-in said that the upcoming military exercises, which are expected to take place between March and April, could be pushed back if Kim Jong-un is willing to take a break from his country’s nuclear and missile tests.

“It is possible for South Korea and the U.S. to review the possibility of postponing the exercises,” President Moon Jae-in said. “I’ve made such a suggestion to the U.S., and the U.S. is currently reviewing it. However, all this depends on how North Korea behaves,” he added.

Tillerson, however, said he was not aware of any plans to postpone the “long-standing, scheduled and regular” exercises between the two countries.

“They’re carried out on a scheduled basis. We announce them in advance. There’s nothing surprising about them, and I’m not aware of any plans to change what is scheduled,” Tillerson said on Tuesday during a press conference in Ontario.

At a press conference with Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s minister of foreign affairs, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the scheduled military drills will continue around the Korean peninsula. December 19, 2017. [Patrick Doyle / Bloomberg]

Although South Korea and the U.S. insist that the joint military drills are “purely defensive,” the exercises are also extremely large in scale. Earlier this year, nearly 300,000 Korean troops and 15,000 U.S. troops participated in the annual Foal Eagle exercise.

U.S.-South Korea joint landing operation drill in Pohang [Reuters]

That is much larger than Russia’s “Zapad-2017” war games, which took place in September and alarmed many NATO leaders. Those military drills involved approximately 100,000 Russian troops. The U.S.-South Korea drills will likely involve three times that amount.

South Korean and US marines depart a South Korean marine base to participate in a joint landing drill, March 2016 [EPA/YNA SOUTH KOREA OUT]

With the Winter Olympics arriving in South Korea in the coming weeks, President Moon believes the games are an opportunity to cool the region’s ongoing nuclear crisis. South Korea confirmed that any North Korean athletes who are eligible to compete would be welcome, although North Korea has not confirmed any plans to send a team.

The 2018 Winter Olympics start Feb. 9 in Pyeongchang, about 50 miles southeast of the DMZ. Earlier this month, South Korea security forces conducted a series of anti-terror drills to prepare against potential attacks, ranging from hostage situations to bomb-strapped drones. Pyeongchang’s organizing committee for the 2018 Games has also hired a private cyber security company to guard against any hacking attacks from the North, according to Reuters.

Korean SWAT units take part in a security drill at the opening venue of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games, December 12, 2017. [REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji]


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