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USFK calls recent drills ‘routine’

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A tweet from the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division on Thursday described the Dec. 5-6 artillery drill as a routine training exercise. [SCREEN CAPTURE]
A tweet from the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division on Thursday described the Dec. 5-6 artillery drill as a routine training exercise. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

The United States Forces Korea (USFK) described an artillery drill conducted last week, which the North Korean military cited as a pretext for shelling the eastern and western maritime buffer zones, as a “routine” training exercise.

Photos released by the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division through its Twitter account on Thursday were accompanied by a caption that read, “1st Battalion, 38th Field Artillery Regiment conducted a routine, regularly scheduled live-fire exercise from 5-6 December in order to certify launcher crew members.”

The time period in the caption corresponds to the dates that the South Korean and the U.S. militaries conducted live-fire drills in Cheorwon, Gangwon, close to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

The North’s military said the allies’ drills prompted it to fire 130 artillery shells into the eastern and western maritime buffer zones on Dec. 5 and 90 shells into the eastern maritime buffer zone on Dec. 6.

Maritime buffer zones were set up under a 2018 inter-Korean comprehensive military agreement that called for the de-escalation of cross-border tensions and was intended to reduce the risk of military clashes at sea.

While the Twitter post uploaded by the 2nd Infantry Division did not elaborate, its description of the artillery drill as a “regularly scheduled” training exercise appeared to push back against the idea that the exercise constituted a provocation, as characterized by the North Korean military in a Dec. 5 statement.

“The enemy should immediately cease military actions that cause escalation of tensions in areas near the front lines where visual surveillance is possible,” an unnamed Korean People’s Army spokesperson said, warning that the North would respond “firmly” and with “overwhelming” military action to any provocation.

The North’s opposition to joint drills by the South Korean and U.S. militaries, which it has continuously described as rehearsals for an invasion, has been echoed by China and Russia, veto-wielding members of the United Nations Security Council. They have blamed the United States for tensions on the peninsula and blocked new sanctions against Pyongyang for its missile and nuclear weapons programs.

The tweet from the 2nd Infantry Division also came amid signs that the North is preparing for a massive military parade.

Satellite images from Planet Labs show full-scale marching practices began in the first week of December at the Mirim military parade training ground in southeast Pyongyang.

The photos, taken on Dec. 9, 11, 13 and 14, show large numbers of soldiers in block formations throughout the compound’s replica of Kim Il Sung Square in downtown Pyongyang, which is the usual location of the regime’s celebratory parades.

North Korean state media has not announced a date for an upcoming parade, but one potential date is Feb. 8, which marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army (KPA).

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