The annual Foal Eagle drills began early on Sunday, South Korea’s Defense Ministry spokesman announced.
The drills were postponed back in January to accommodate North Korea’s then-upcoming participation in Winter Olympics in South Korea. North Korean athletes participated in the Games in a rare show of unity staged by the two Koreas, and diplomats from the two sides met to defuse tensions.
The US and South Korea have also halved the length of the Foal Eagle drills — which had historically run for two months — in what seemed to be a minor attempt at de-escalation with Pyongyang.
But the drills still risk endangering the nascent diplomatic efforts by the two Koreas to end long-running hostilities.
Silence in Pyongyang?
The joint military maneuvers involve a series of field training exercises, with some 11,500 American soldiers and 290,000 South Korean troops taking part.
Pyongyang has long regarded the joint exercises as rehearsals for an invasion.
Despite the postponement this year, North Korea did warn that the resumption of the drills could endanger rapprochement.
However, there has been no immediate reaction by North Korea to the start of the drills or to the announcement earlier on Sunday by the Pentagon that the drills would proceed as usual.
Beginning in mid-April, the US and South Korea will also be holding the computer-simulated Key Resolve drill, which will last for two weeks.
Tensions on the Korean Peninsula had been running high last year. Pyongyang advanced its weapon programs as the US took an increasingly war-like posture toward North Korea. But North Korean leader Kim Jong-un expressed sudden interest in the resolution of disagreements with the South on New Year’s Day, and a series of overtures began.
A meeting has now been planned between Kim and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in.
US President Donald Trump has also said he plans to meet Kim sometime in May. There has been no official confirmation from Pyongyang of that meeting, however.
Kim, who last week met with Chinese President Xi Jinping, expressed Pyongyang’s willingness to denuclearize if US and South Korea took “synchronous measures for the realization of peace,” a tacit condition that Seoul and Washington dispense with the drills.