By Oh Seok-min
SEOUL, Aug. 28 (Yonhap) — South Korea and the United States were set Friday to wrap up their two-week summertime combined military exercise staged in a scaled-back manner due to the coronavirus pandemic, officials said.
The computer-simulated Combined Command Post Training (CCPT) began on Aug. 18 as the first major exercise between the two countries this year, as they called off their annual springtime exercise due to COVID-19.
The first part of the exercise, which ran until Saturday, focused on how to defend the South against an invasion by North Korea, and the second part from Aug. 24-28 was based on a scenario of launching a counterattack in response, according to the officials.
The exercise was pushed back two days behind schedule, after a South Korean Army officer who was supposed to take part in the exercise tested positive for the coronavirus.
Earlier this week, a South Korean civilian worker of an Army unit taking part in the exercise also tested positive, but the case has not had any major impacts on the exercise as the employee was not a direct member of the training and key service members were not exposed to the virus, defense ministry officials said.
“We’ve put in place strict prevention guidelines to ensure the health of our service personnel participating in the exercise. No major problems were reported during the training, and it is under way normally,” a military official said.
Since mid-August, South Korea has seen a drastic surge in confirmed COVID-19 patients, with the number of new daily cases reaching the highest levels since March.
The virus also prevented American troops necessary for the program from coming to South Korea due to coronavirus-related movement restrictions, forcing the exercise to be held on a smaller scale. Seoul and Washington also skipped nighttime training programs out of virus concerns, the officer noted.
As the exercise was staged in an adjusted manner, Seoul and Washington were unable to fully carry out the planned Full Operational Capability (FOC) test for Seoul’s envisioned retaking of the wartime operational control (OPCON) of its forces from the U.S.
As the FOC test is one of the crucial steps to verify if Seoul is on course to meet the conditions for the transition, chances are that the envisioned transfer is unlikely to take place within the current Moon Jae-in administration, whose term will end in May 2022.
No specific deadline has been set for the OPCON transition, as it is conditions-based, not time-based, though many see the two sides eyeing around 2022 as the target date.
The FOC test is expected to be conducted again in the first half of next year. Following the FOC test, the two sides will carry out a Full Mission Capability (FMC) test.
This time, North Korea has not made any official responses to the combined exercise, though it has long lashed out at the joint program, claiming that it is a rehearsal for invasion of the North.
Pyongyang appears to have been focusing on quarantine efforts against the new coronavirus as well as recovery work after damage by recent heavy downpours and the powerful Typhoon Bavi, military officers said, adding that the communist country also carried out its summertime military drills in an adjusted manner due to those internal challenges.
No more major combine exercises are scheduled for this year between Seoul and Washington, except for small-scale ones between or among units, according to the officials.