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A U.S. Air Force U-2 Dragon Lady takes part in a drill at Osan Air Base in South Korea on Aug. 21.   © Reuters

US, South Korea eyeing more offensive options on Pyongyang

Amid rising stakes, annual war games seen focusing harder on pre-emptive strikes

SEOUL -- The U.S. and South Korea are expected to more strongly stress offensive maneuvers and even a possible decapitation strike against North Korea in their annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian joint military drills that began Monday amid continuing tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

The mostly computer-simulated exercises through Aug. 31 usually center on such defensive maneuvers as responding to an attack by Pyongyang. But given the growing nuclear threat, Washington and Seoul will likely also rehearse operations specifically targeting Kim Jong Un's government.

American and South Korean forces have based their joint drills on Operations Plan 5015, which includes a pre-emptive strike on nuclear and missile facilities of the North, according to the South's Yonhap News Agency. They are said to have categorized potential signs of a North Korean attack into three threat levels and to be planning a unique pre-emptive response to each.

OPLAN 5015 was drafted in 2015 and incorporated for the first time into joint drills in the spring of 2016. While deposing the current government in Pyongyang is believed to be the ultimate goal, it is also said to contain plans for keeping the North's nuclear and biological weapons from making their way to a third country, as well as plans for keeping the population from panicking.

Juggling expectations

Even as Washington continues exerting pressure on Pyongyang, it also seems to be avoiding further escalation of tensions. South Korea is contributing about 50,000 service members to the drills, the same as last year, but the U.S. has reduced its head count by 30% to about 17,500. Some see Washington as heeding Pyongyang's objections and signaling a desire to avoid armed conflict.

Defense Secretary James Mattis dismisses such speculation. "The numbers [of troops involved] are by design to achieve the exercise objectives," he told reporters Sunday.

A source from South Korea's office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff also stressed that this year's drills will be held on the same scale as last year's.

The two allies may also be rehearsing a decapitation strike -- a mission specifically designed to remove Kim from power. The South Korean government has neither confirmed nor denied this, fueling speculation that this year's exercises are taking a more offensive focus.

North Korea is especially riled by the prospect of a decapitation strike. But whether Pyongyang will bow to the international community's demands to abandon its weapons program is unclear. It will be difficult to bring the North to the negotiating table even behind closed doors, according to Moon Sung-mook of the South's Korea Research Institute for National Strategy.

Moon sees the North as unlikely to follow through on threats to fire missiles toward Guam but believes it could conduct a sixth nuclear test on its founding day of Sept. 9 or another time to protest United Nations sanctions.

Measured response, for now

Meanwhile, North Korea slammed the joint drills as an attempt "to ignite a nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula" via the state-run Korean Central News Agency on Monday.

The situation on the peninsula "has plunged into a critical phase due to the reckless north-targeted war racket of the war maniacs," it said. It also protested against the seven other countries that are observing the U.S.-South Korean drills.

Pyongyang made no overt military provocations that day. But it did test a submarine-launched ballistic missile during the same exercises last year and could take similar steps again.

Should the U.S. deploy Guam-based bombers and aircraft carriers to the Korean Peninsula, "North Korea could launch SLBMs and make other major provocations, further escalating tensions," a South Korean military expert said.

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