Seoul, South Korea — Hundreds of thousands of people in South Korea are taking part in defense drills this week that, this year in particular, have North Korea’s evolving nuclear threats in mind.
The Ulchi Freedom Shield exercises began Monday across the country to run through August 31. The annual summertime military drills uniquely merge U.S. and South Korean war games with government engagement.
During the four-day civilian Ulchi exercises, government, law enforcement and emergency personnel react to terror attacks, natural disasters and, for the first time, a North Korean nuclear strike.
Civilians took part in air raid drills on Wednesday, revived for the first time since 2017 after being halted during a detente with North Korea under previous U.S. and South Korean administrations.
The Freedom Shield component consists of exercises between U.S. and South Korean commanders, complemented by field-based drills to ensure that the allies have combined interoperability and a defensive posture amid a changing security environment.
Scenarios would be informed by lessons learned in past wars and conflicts, including the Ukraine war, officials said.
The U.S. Space Force, which launched a component field command in South Korea in December, will also participate for the first time.
A stronger deterrence
In his first remarks since returning from a trilateral summit with the United States and Japan, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said on Monday that Pyongyang will not hesitate to use its nuclear weapons to achieve its goal in war.
From a combined forces bunker on Wednesday, Yoon said some 8,000 U.S. and South Korean soldiers were taking part in 38 field maneuvers this year, the most in recent years. The allies’ readiness is the foundation of an “immediate and decisive response” that will punish a North Korean strike, he said.
The response to North Korea’s provocations will become stronger, high-level government officials have said, since last week’s trilateral summit that produced a series of documents laying out a blueprint for reinforced relations among the U.S., Japan and South Korea.
Commitments include activating real-time sharing of data on North Korea’s ballistic missile launches and conducting annual “multi-domain trilateral exercises.”
“I think if you read the documents carefully, they are based on an understanding that a challenge to any one of us is a challenge to all of us,” Kurt Campbell, National Security Council coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs, said Tuesday during a digital press briefing with reporters.
North Korea angrily reacted to the Camp David documents and the Ulchi Freedom Shield exercises, which it views as a prelude to an invasion.
The country warned that should the commitments be realized, the region would be pushed into “an unprecedented large-scale thermonuclear war.”
Pyongyang also informed Tokyo of its plan to launch a rocket carrying a satellite as early as Thursday. The window runs until August 31, the day that Ulchi Freedom Shield ends.
Tokyo and Seoul have urged North Korea to call off the rocket launch, noting the claimed satellite test utilizes ballistic missile technology that is banned under United Nations Security Council resolutions.