By Jung Sung-ki
South Korea and the United States will hold a large-scale combined exercise to deter North Korean submarine infiltration and block sea lanes to the North between June and July, top naval commanders from the two allies announced Tuesday.
The joint naval exercise would be a step toward the resumption of an annual large-scale field exercise by the South Korean and U.S. militaries, observers said.
The two countries annually held the Team Spirit field exercise between 1976 and 1993. The exercise was cancelled in 1994 by the liberal Kim Dae-jung administration under the "sunshine policy" of engaging the communist North.
Since then, the two militaries have focused more on computerized war games, such as the Key Resolve exercise, a simulation-driven, defense-oriented combined command-post exercise to evaluate the allied forces' capability to receive forces from bases outside the country in case of war.
Both militaries hold a theater-wide combined field exercise dubbed Foal Eagle, which includes rear area security and stability operations, special operations, ground maneuvers, amphibious operations and combat air operations.
The Ministry of National Defense denied the idea of resuming field exercises.
"There has been no decision or consultation on the resumption of Team Spirit," ministry spokesman Won Tae-jae told reporters. "We may be able to expand the current exercises, but resuming large-scale field training requires a huge budget and bilateral consultation."
Earlier in the day, Rear Adm. Peter Aguon Gumataotao, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Korea, visited the ROK Navy headquarters in South Chungcheong Province, to meet with Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Kim Sung-chan for discussions over joint efforts against North Korean provocation in waters near the sea border.
"To support the ROK Navy's countermeasures against the North, U.S. Naval Forces Korea will use all available capabilities to play a significant role," Gumataotao was quoted by a South Korean Navy spokesman as saying.
Kim and Gumataotao discussed details to prepare for a ship-interdiction exercise in waters around and outside of the Korean Peninsula later this year, the spokesman said.
Defense sources said the forthcoming naval training would involve up-to-date warships of the U.S. 7th Fleet, such as a nuclear-powered submarine, Aegis-equipped destroyers and an aircraft carrier.
The South Korean Navy's Type-209/214 attack submarines, Sejong the Great-class KDX-III Aegis destroyers and KDX-II destroyers will join the exercise, they said.
On Monday, Minister of National Defense Kim Tae-young declared that his military would actively take part in the U.S.-led global campaign, Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), aimed at stopping the transfer of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).
The PSI was launched in 2003 to prevent the transfer of WMDs, their delivery systems and related materials by air, ground, sea to and from states and non-state actors of proliferation concern.
More than 90 countries around the world are participating in the drill.
North Korea, known for exporting illicit weapons, is among the major targets of the initiative.
"Elite forces from the Republic of Korea and the United States will participate in this training exercise, which will serve as an opportunity to focus on the enhancement of defensive tactics against underwater attacks by North Korea and our surface firing capabilities," Kim stressed.