U.S. Army Secretary Eric Fanning said Saturday that annual military drills between the United States and South Korea would go ahead next month, despite North Korea's warning of a "vicious" showdown if the war games proceed.
On Thursday, North Korea's top diplomat for U.S. affairs said that the nature of the maneuvers has become openly aggressive, and that Pyongyang is ready for war. The United States and South Korea regularly conduct joint military exercises south of the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas, and Pyongyang typically responds to them with tough talk and threats of retaliation.
Fanning, who was in Malaysia as part of a regional tour, said that the U.S. has conducted military drills with South Korea for decades, and that "these exercises contribute to stability, they don't compete with stability."
"The games are currently to continue as planned," he told The Associated Press. "We have been conducting exercises with South Korea and with many other militaries in the region for decades. That's partly what had provided stability that we have seen since World War II."
Maj. Chris Ophardt, Fanning's public affairs officer, said in an email that the drills are a "routine and defense-oriented exercise designed to enhance readiness, protect the region and maintain stability on the Korean Peninsula."
Last year's Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercises involved 30,000 American and 50,000 South Korean troops and followed a period of heightened animosity between the rival Koreas sparked by land mine explosions that maimed two South Korean soldiers. The exercises escalated tensions and rhetoric, but concluded with no major incidents.
Despite plans to scale down the size of the army, Fanning said the U.S. has increased its presence in Asia-Pacific, reflecting its commitment to the region. The number of U.S. soldiers and civilian Army workers in the Pacific region has shot up to more than 100,000, from 70,000 just four years ago, he said.
"The types of relationships that we have with armies across the Pacific are really what helps, I think, keep things stable in this part of the world," he said. "We find these exercises to be very important, very fruitful and build relationships that last generations."
In an interview with the AP on Thursday, Han Song Ryol, director-general of the U.S. affairs department at North Korea's Foreign Ministry, said the U.S. move to put North Korean leader King Jong Un on its list of sanctioned individuals and other recent actions have put the situation on the Korean Peninsula on a war footing.
Han said that U.S.-South Korea military exercises conducted this spring were unprecedented in scale, and that the U.S. has deployed the USS Mississippi and USS Ohio nuclear-powered submarines to South Korean ports, deployed the B-52 strategic bomber around South Korea and is planning to set up the world's most advanced missile defense system, known by its acronym THAAD, in the South, a move that has also angered China.
Han said North Korea believes the drills reportedly now include training designed to prepare troops for the invasion of the North's capital and "decapitation strikes" aimed at killing its top leadership.
"Nobody can predict what kind of influence this kind of vicious confrontation between the DPRK and the United States will have upon the situation on the Korean Peninsula," he said, using the acronym for North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. "By doing these kinds of vicious and hostile acts toward the DPRK, the U.S. has already declared war against the DPRK. So it is our self-defensive right and justifiable action to respond in a very hard way."
"We are all prepared for war, and we are all prepared for peace," he said. "If the United States forces those kinds of large-scale exercises in August, then the situation caused by that will be the responsibility of the United States."
Fanning, who was appointed to his post in May, was in Malaysia to observe an annual joint army drill. He had earlier visited Hawaii and Guam. He flew to Japan late Saturday and will then travel to South Korea.