U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Sunday that this week's joint exercises with South Korea will involve fewer American troops than last year because of the current emphasis on integration, not because of recent tensions with North Korea.
The Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise is set to run from Monday through Aug. 31 with the participation of some 17,500 U.S. service members, down from 25,000 last year.
The computer simulation-based drills are held annually to prepare the allies against a possible North Korean attack, but Pyongyang denounces them as a rehearsal for an invasion of the North.
"This right now is an exercise to make certain that we're ready to defend South Korea and our allies over there," Mattis told reporters en route to Jordan, according to a transcript released by his office.
Tensions have run high in recent weeks following North Korea's two intercontinental ballistic missile tests in July, and its threat to fire missiles toward the U.S. territory of Guam.
Seeking to defuse the tensions, China and Russia have called for a suspension of the exercises in exchange for a halt to Pyongyang's provocations, a proposal rejected by Seoul and Washington.
But speculation has persisted that the allies may scale back the exercises.
"The numbers (of troops) are by design to achieve the exercise objectives, and you always pick what you want to emphasize," Mattis said. "Right now there is a heavy emphasis on command post operations, so the integration of all the different efforts."
Mattis also said the exercise had been planned months in advance to address areas of weakness and what the allies want to accomplish going forward.
"Sometimes it's better to leave them in their fundamental training mode rather than being out on the ground waiting for orders as staffs are learning how to work together," he said. "Meanwhile, they're sharpening their combat skills, while the staffs are sharpening integration skills."
In a Sunday editorial, North Korea's official Rodong Sinmun newspaper called the exercise "the most explicit expression of hostility against us" and an act of "adding fuel to the fire."
It also warned in a separate commentary that the U.S. should "properly face up to the reality."
"The DPRK is the strongest possessor of ICBMs capable of striking the U.S. mainland from anywhere and anytime as it pleases," the paper said, according to the North's Korean Central News Agency. "Neither Guam nor Hawaii nor the U.S. mainland can dodge the merciless strike of the Strategic Force of the Korean People's Army."
DPRK stands for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, North Korea's official name.
"The KPA is keeping a high alert, fully ready to contain the enemies. It will take resolute steps the moment even a slight sign of the 'preventive war' is spotted," the commentary added.
A preventive war is initiated to prevent an enemy from carrying out an attack. U.S. President Donald Trump's National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster has said that Washington is preparing plans for such a war among many options to deal with North Korea's missile and nuclear threats. (Yonhap)