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South Korea, U.S., Japan kick off missile defense exercise in East Sea

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From right: the ROKS Yulgok Yi I from South Korea, the USS Benfold from the United States and the JS Atago from Japan conduct a missile defense exercise in the East Sea on Monday morning. [REPUBLIC OF KOREA NAVY]
From right: the ROKS Yulgok Yi I from South Korea, the USS Benfold from the United States and the JS Atago from Japan conduct a missile defense exercise in the East Sea on Monday morning. [REPUBLIC OF KOREA NAVY]

South Korea, the United States and Japan kicked off a trilateral missile defense exercise in the East Sea on Monday to strengthen deterrence in the face of North Korea’s military threats, South Korea’s Navy said.

The three countries pledged to heighten cooperation in security and defense matters last year amid a marked escalation in missile launches by North Korea, which said it tested a solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile on Thursday.

The last joint anti-missile exercise by the three countries took place in February.

The exercise included the ROKS Yulgok Yi I from South Korea, the USS Benfold from the United States and the JS Atago from Japan, all of which are equipped with the Aegis Combat System.

Aegis is an advanced command and control system that uses powerful radar and computers to track and guide weapons to moving enemy targets.

During the exercise, the three countries’ forces practiced detecting and tracking a computer-simulated ballistic missile, as well as sharing information.

“This exercise was an opportunity to strengthen security cooperation between South Korea, the United States and Japan against the North’s escalating nuclear and missile threats and to bolster our Navy’s ability to respond to ballistic missile launches,” a Navy official told reporters on the condition of anonymity.

The three countries agreed last week to conduct regular missile defense and anti-submarine exercises during their Defense Trilateral Talks last week.

The exercise that began Monday is the latest in a series of trilateral drills that highlight tightening security cooperation among the United States and its two East Asian allies following the recent thaw in South Korean-Japanese relations after President Yoon Suk Yeol’s summit with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo last month.

The two leaders agreed to normalize the General Security of Military Information Agreement, a military intelligence-sharing pact, and strengthen trilateral cooperation among South Korea, the United States and Japan to better counter North Korea’s threats during their March 16 summit.

An F-35B stealth fighter from the U.S. Marine Corps takes flight from the South Korean Air Force's 1st Fighter Wing base in Gwangju, southwestern Korea, on Monday during joint South Korea-U.S. air force drills. [YONHAP]
An F-35B stealth fighter from the U.S. Marine Corps takes flight from the South Korean Air Force’s 1st Fighter Wing base in Gwangju, southwestern Korea, on Monday during joint South Korea-U.S. air force drills. [YONHAP]

Meanwhile, the South Korean Air Force said it began large-scale joint air force drills with the United States on Monday.

The annual exercise, known as the Korea Flying Training (KFT) drills, involves 110 aircraft and more than 1,400 troops over a 12-day period at Gwangju Air Base.

Over 60 South Korean military aircraft, including F-35A, F-15K and KF-16 fighters, will be involved in the drills, while the United States will deploy over 40 aircraft, including F-16 fighters and A-10 attack aircraft from the U.S. Air Force and F-35B and FA-18 jets from the U.S. Marine Corps.

The South Korean Air Force said the allies aim to enhance the interoperability and combined operational capability of their advanced fighters through the exercise, which will encompass strike package flight, defensive counter-air and close air support operations.

KFT is one of the two annual large-scale joint air force exercises held by South Korea and the United States. The other, called Vigilant Storm, has usually taken place in the latter half of the year.

BY MICHAEL LEE [lee.junhyuk@joongang.co.kr]

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