New U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is committed to maintaining readiness of U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula, including through joint military exercises with South Korean forces, a Pentagon spokesman said. Photo by Jeon Heon-kyun/EPA
Jan. 29 (UPI) -- Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is committed to keeping U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula in a "readiness posture" against threats from North Korea through continued joint training exercises with South Korean forces, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said at a press briefing.
"We recognize the value of training and exercises to keep forces ready, and no place is that more important than on the Korean Peninsula," Kirby said at the briefing on Thursday. "What that exercise regime is going to look like specifically going forward, I'm not prepared to tell you but [Austin] fully understands the need to stay ready and we're going to be committed to that."
Several joint military exercises between U.S. and South Korean forces were canceled or scaled back in a diplomatic gesture after Washington and Pyongyang began nuclear negotiations in 2018.
The COVID-19 pandemic also forced the cancelation of a scheduled joint drill in March of last year and led to a reduced exercise in August.
Pyongyang has consistently condemned the joint drills, characterizing them as hostile and a rehearsal for an invasion. Earlier this month, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un called for the end of the exercises at a party congress, saying they violated a military agreement signed by the two Koreas in 2018.
Kirby said he believes the U.S. troops have been able to stay ready despite the diminished scope of the exercises.
"My understanding is that they were still able to exercise and to train at a level that kept a readiness capability intact," he said.
"And that is certainly what the secretary is committed to doing," Kirby added. "'Ready to fight tonight' is not just a slogan. It actually means something there on the peninsula and the secretary is committed to that."
"Ready to fight tonight" is the motto of U.S. Forces Korea, which has around 28,500 troops stationed on the Korean Peninsula.
On Wednesday, South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook confirmed that a planned joint exercise this spring would be held with the United States, calling it a computer simulation without outdoor drills.
"It is a regular program and for defense purposes," Suh said at a press conference, news agency Yonhap reported.
North Korea has used the military exercises in the past as a pretext for conducting weapons tests of its own, and many observers are wondering whether Pyongyang is planning any provocations to welcome in the new administration of U.S. President Joe Biden.
The nuclear-armed state held military parades in October and earlier this month during which it showed off new hardware, including a new submarine-launched ballistic missile.
Kirby acknowledged the new weapons in his remarks on Thursday, saying the Pentagon was "mindful" of North Korea's military ambitions.
"I'm not going to get into assessments of specific weapon systems now but we're certainly mindful of Pyongyang's desire to advance its military capabilities and we know exactly what those military capabilities are designed to do," he said. "We're going to continue to make sure that we have the readiness posture we need on the Korean Peninsula."