January 14, 2022
SEOUL – South Korea and the US are considering putting off their annual springtime combined military exercises from March to April, due to the March 9 presidential election and the COVID-19 situation, according to local news reports Thursday.
Yonhap News Agency, citing unnamed sources, said the allies have been discussing a possible delay due to the election season and spread of the coronavirus.
The Ministry of National Defense, in responding to the report, said the two sides are still in talks over the matter.
“In regards to the joint drill, nothing has been confirmed in regards to the timing, scale and method of exercises,” Boo Seung-chan, ministry spokesperson, told a press briefing Thursday. “South Korea and the US are closely consulting, taking various conditions into account.”
US Forces Korea refused to comment on the March exercise plans.
A possible rescheduling could be put in place so that the joint drills do not affect the election. The consideration could also be in light of a recent surge in COVID-19 cases within the US bases.
USFK said it has confirmed 1,599 additional COVID-19 cases among its personnel over the last week, which is a record-high number for its weekly tally.
The move also comes amid concern that the exercise, despite being defensive in nature, could dampen Seoul’s all-out efforts to resume diplomacy with Pyongyang, including the South’s push to declare a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War. The North has for decades lambasted the drills as an act of hostility, which it perceives as part of preparations to invade the North.
The allies typically conduct joint military drills twice a year, in March and August, with the intention of honing defense capabilities against possible North Korean aggression.
Last year, they staged drills on March 8-18 and Aug. 16-26, albeit reduced in scope due to the COVID-19 situation.
In the past, the presidential election did not coincide with the joint drills as voting took place in December. But the election day changed in 2017, following the impeachment and removal of former President Park Geun-hye that led to an early election that put President Moon Jae-in in power. Moon’s single, five-year term ends in May.