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A U.S. Army helicopter flies over tanks during last year's joint drills in South Korea.   © Reuters
International relations

US and South Korea shorten joint military drills

Allies take care not to spoil conciliatory mood with the North

SOTARO SUZUKI and TSUYOSHI NAGASAWA, Nikkei staff writers | North Korea

SEOUL/WASHINGTON -- This year's annual U.S.-South Korea military exercises will start April 1 and run a month or so, roughly half their previous length, likely to avoid provoking North Korea ahead of planned bilateral summits with Pyongyang.

The drills were postponed until after the Pyeongchang Olympics and Paralympics, but will be "at a scale similar to that of the previous years," the U.S. Department of Defense has announced.

A total of 11,500 American service members and roughly 290,000 South Korean service members will take part in the Foal Eagle field exercises, a Pentagon spokesperson said.

South Korea's Ministry of National Defense also said Tuesday that the exercises will reach a similar scale to other years. This softened the rhetoric of 2016 and 2017, which touted the drills as the "largest ever." The ministry did not announce what equipment will be used or how many South Korean personnel will participate.

The U.S. deployed the USS Carl Vinson nuclear carrier to last year's drills in a show of military might and as a warning to North Korea. But Washington at this point does not plan to send an aircraft carrier for the 2018 exercises, according to a South Korean defense source.

South Korean media also report that the allies will not rehearse a so-called decapitation strike on the North Korean leadership in this year's Key Resolve command post exercises. Washington and Seoul are essentially scaling down their drills, South Korean experts agree.

The Olympics brought a thaw in North Korean relations with the South and the U.S., and Pyongyang has agreed to separate summits with both countries. Seoul and Washington tread a fine line between assuring the world that their exercises will continue as usual and maintaining a conciliatory mood with the North.

Pyongyang had previously slammed the U.S.-South Korea drills, even testing ballistic missiles during the 2017 exercises. But leader Kim Jong Un has expressed understanding of the drills this year to the South Koreans.

North Korea is also making every effort to realize a summit with the U.S. and will avoid responding harshly to the exercises, said Park Hwee-rhak, a professor at the South's Kookmin University.

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