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South Korean and US forces will conduct Exercise ‘Ulchi Freedom Shield’ – an annual joint, combined, and interagency event – from 21 to 31 August 2023, the US Navy (USN) press office has reported.

The exercise is designed to strengthen the combined US/South Korean defence posture on the Korean Peninsula based on scenarios that reflect diverse threats within the security environment.

The live, virtual, and constructive exercise will include Republic of Korea (RoK) government personnel, as well as US and ROK military forces from all services.

Seabees with Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 4 and Republic of Korea Navy personnel rake and shovel gravel as part of a pier damage repair exercise during ‘Ulchi Freedom Shield’ in September 2022. (Photo: US Navy)

Additionally, all United Nations Command (UNC) member states are scheduled to participate in different capacities, with 10 members providing additional exercise augmentees: Australia, Canada, France, Greece, Italy, New Zealand, Philippines, Thailand, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (Sweden and Switzerland) will also observe and monitor the exercise, fulfilling duties prescribed by the Korean Armistice Agreement.

This year’s ‘Ulchi Freedom Shield’ comes in the wake of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un demanding that the country’s weapon factories “drastically boost the existing missile production capacity”. Touring missile and rocket production facilities on 11-12 August, Kim said that the North Korean military should be equipped with “overwhelming military force” for “coping with any war at any moment so as to prevent the enemies from daring use their armed forces, and surely annihilate them if they launch an attack”, according to the official Korean Central News Agency.

In addition to this year’s ‘Ulchi Freedom Shield’, ROK and US units will also conduct a number of complementary large-scale, combined training events to strengthen interoperability. The training will increase combat readiness, as well as strengthen the security and stability on the Korean peninsula and across Northeast Asia.

“These exercises also highlight the longstanding military partnership, commitment and enduring friendship between the ROK and US; help to solidify the role of the Alliance as the linchpin of peace and security in the region; and reaffirm the US ironclad commitment to the defense of the ROK,” the USN press release stated.

Prior to ‘Ulchi Freedom Shield 23’ a Crisis Management Exercise (CMX) is taking place from 15 to 18 August to train the respective headquarters elements of the ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff, Combined Forces Command, US Forces Korea, and United Nations Command.

Training exercises like ‘Ulchi Freedom Shield’ are carried out in the spirit of the 1 October 1953 ROK-US Mutual Defense Treaty and in support of the Korean Armistice. The UNC, meanwhile, was established on 24 July 1950 and was the world’s first attempt at collective security under the United Nations system.

While exercises like ‘Ulchi Freedom Shield’ typically provoke belligerent rhetoric from North Korea, the announcement in June this year that the United States is bolstering its “extended deterrence” in defence of South Korea has no doubt drawn Kim’s ire. This new commitment will see US nuclear-armed submarines docking in South Korea for the first time in four decades.

Peter Felstead