Korean thaw leads US to scale down military exercises

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The Independent Online

A joint military exercise between South Korea and the United States, aimed at defending against a North Korean invasion, has been reduced this year because of the growing mood of reconciliation between Seoul and Pyongyang.

A joint military exercise between South Korea and the United States, aimed at defending against a North Korean invasion, has been reduced this year because of the growing mood of reconciliation between Seoul and Pyongyang.

Yesterday, South Korean and American troops embarked on the 12-day Operation Ulchi Focus Lens, a computer simulation that also involves bases in Hawaii and mainland USA. But large-scale open-air exercises have been cancelled after the success of the June summit between the leaders of North and South Korea, and last week's emotional reunion of families separated by the Cold War confrontation between the two countries.

This is the first time that either side has taken clear steps to reduce military tension on the peninsula, where almost two million armed men confront each another across a border thick with barbed wire, minefields and tank traps.

The South Korean President, Kim Dae Jung, said yesterday: "We need a tight security posture to ensure peace. But we must also make efforts not to ruin the reconciliatory mood which has finally emerged on the peninsula."

The South Korean-American war games take place every year, and each time they provoke a furious and sometimes bellicose response in the state-controlled North Korean media. The Korean Central News Agency said at the weekend: "If the South Korean authorities truly want improved North-South relations and peace on the Korean peninsula, they should take a step to cancel the large-scale joint military drill against the North." The fact that the Seoul government is - for the first time - acting on their complaints shows how far the gap has narrowed between the two sides in the last two months.

Lee Yoo-soo, the chief of the government's emergency planning committee, said: "We will conduct this year's Ulchi Focus Lens exercise in such a way which suits the security environment on the Korean peninsula after the inter-Korean summit." Fewer personnel will take part in this year's exercise which, officially at least, will shift its emphasis from rehearsing for war to disaster prevention.

Drills involving reservists, civil servants and student cadets will not take place, and amphibious landings, river crossings and simulated air raids on Seoul have been cancelled. The number of American troops taking part will be 16,800, compared to 19,000 in last year's exercise.

The Korean peninsula is one of the world's most heavily armed and militarised places, and for more than 50 years millions of people in the North and South have spent much of their lives preparing for war. South Korea has 690,000 full-time troops, supported by 37,000 Americans, as well as the 45,000 marines and sailors stationed in Japan. The North is believed to have 1,150,000 active personnel and 6,550,000 reserves.

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