South Korean soldiers check K-1 tanks at an Army training range on the western section of the inter-Korean border in Paju on Monday as South Korean and U.S. troops kicked off the Ulchi Freedom Shield exercise, set to run Monday through Sept. 1. Photo by Yonhap
SEOUL, Aug. 22 (UPI) -- U.S. and South Korean troops began their annual summertime military drills on Monday, including a return to large-scale joint field exercises for the first time since 2018 amid rising threats from North Korea.
The drills, named Ulchi Freedom Shield, combine computer simulation-based command post training, field maneuvers and civil defense exercises and will run until Sept. 1, South Korean defense officials announced.
Seoul and Washington scaled back their joint drills in 2018 during a period of diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang under the administrations of U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
President Yoon Suk-yeol took office in May vowing to strengthen military ties with Washington and bolster deterrence against North Korea.
Ulchi Freedom Shield's live-fire exercises will involve thousands of troops from land, sea and air forces and will be tightly integrated with drills to address emerging threats including terrorism and cyberattacks.
The training will involve "realistic scenarios that reflect changes in the new warfare," Seoul's defense ministry said, and will include drills at sensitive facilities, including ports, semiconductor factories and nuclear power plants.
The four-day civil defense element began on Monday, involving 480,000 people at 4,000 institutions across the public sector who will practice emergency response and evacuation procedures.
"Only exercises that are identical to an actual battle can firmly defend the lives of our people and the security of our nation," Yoon said during a Cabinet meeting Monday, according to news agency Yonhap. "In order to maintain peace on the Korean Peninsula, our watertight security posture must serve as the basis."
The drills began days after Pyongyang flatly rejected Yoon's "audacious" plan to help boost the North Korean economy if it agrees to abandon its nuclear arsenal.
Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, on Friday called the offer the "height of absurdity" and derided Yoon as "childish."
North Korea has long condemned U.S.-South Korea joint exercises as rehearsals for an invasion and frequently responds with military provocations of its own. Last week, Pyongyang launched two cruise missiles into the Yellow Sea, the latest in an unprecedented flurry of weapons tests since the beginning of the year.
In a speech last month, Kim Jong Un said he was ready to use his nuclear arsenal against Seoul and Washington and condemned their "hostile acts."
"We are listening to the reckless remarks of the South Korean military thugs and we are keeping a close eye on all noteworthy military actions with the United States," Kim said.
Officials in Seoul and Washington have warned that the secretive state appears poised for its seventh nuclear detonation at any time.