South Korea and the United States will conduct its springtime military exercise this week, but the joint drill will be smaller than usual because of the coronavirus pandemic, Seoul said on Sunday.
The allies will begin a nine day "computer-simulated command post exercise" on Monday, South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement.
South Korea and the United States decided to move forward with the drills after "comprehensively taking into consideration the COVID-19 situation, the maintenance of the combat readiness posture, the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula and the establishment of peace," the JCS said, noting that the exercise is "defensive" in nature.
The drills will not include outdoor manoeuvres, which have been carried out throughout the year, and the number of troops and equipment will be minimized due to the pandemic, Yonhap news agency reported.
The exercises also provide a chance to assess South Korea’s readiness to take over wartime operational control (OPCON), and the series of scaled back drills could complicate President Moon Jae-in’s drive to complete the transfer before his term ends in 2022.
Even before the pandemic the drills had been reduced to facilitate U.S. negotiations aimed at dismantling Pyongyang’s nuclear programmes.
The combined drills are closely monitored by North Korea which calls them a “rehearsal for war”.
While Pyongyang has sometimes responded to such drills with its own shows of military force, it may be unlikely to do so this time, said Chad O'Carroll, CEO of Korea Risk Group, which monitors North Korea.
"I think there’s too much on the domestic agenda going wrong to risk any significant tit-for-tat escalation," he said on Twitter. "And this is a government which tends to focus most of its resources on dealing with one key issue at a time."
North Korea's drastic measures to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak have exacerbated human rights abuses and economic hardship, including reports of starvation, for its citizens, already battered by international sanctions, a United Nations investigator has said.