SEOUL (NYTIMES) - The US military said Monday (Oct 16) that it would practice evacuating noncombatant Americans out of South Korea in the event of war and other emergencies, as the two allies began a joint naval exercise amid heightened tensions with North Korea.
The evacuation drill, known as Courageous Channel, is scheduled from next Monday through Friday and is aimed at preparing US "service members and their families to respond to a wide range of crisis management events such as noncombatant evacuation and natural or man-made disasters," the US military said in a statement.
It has been conducting similar noncombatant evacuation exercises for decades, along with other joint military exercises with South Korea. But when tensions escalate with North Korea, as they have recently, such drills draw outsize attention and ignite fear among South Koreans, some of whom take them as a sign that the United States might be preparing for military action against the North.
The South Korean government of President Moon Jae In has repeatedly warned that it opposes a military solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis because it could quickly escalate into a full-blown war in which Koreans would suffer the most.
US officials said they were hoping for a diplomatic end to the crisis but would not rule out military action. And in recent months, as North Korea has accelerated its nuclear and missile programs, President Donald Trump has issued a series of comments that have helped stoke fears among South Koreans of possible war on the Korean Peninsula.
He has threatened to "totally destroy" or rain down "fire and fury" on the North, and has also said that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was "wasting his time" trying to negotiate with the country.
North Korea has matched Trump's tough talk by calling the US leader a "mentally deranged dotard" and threatening to launch missiles around Guam, a US territory in the Western Pacific, and shoot down long-range bombers taking off from the island for exercises near Korea.
With fears of possible US military action persisting among South Koreans, the US military issued a rare news release Monday stressing that the noncombatant evacuation exercise was a "routinely scheduled" drill.
Participants in the exercise receive briefings on evacuation procedures and "limited rehearsals," it said. It did not disclose how many people would participate in the evacuation drill. But it said the scale and focus this year would not vary from past versions.
"Nonparticipants across the peninsula can expect little to no disruption of daily activities on and around military installations," it said. "Although not directly tied to current geopolitical events, our forces must be ready in all areas," said Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, commander of US Forces Korea.
"This training is as important to readiness as our other routine events such as tank gunnery and fighter wing exercises."
Also Monday, the United States and South Korea started a 10-day joint naval exercise in waters east and west of the Korean Peninsula.
The US aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan is joining the annual drill, as are US and South Korean warplanes. The nuclear-powered submarine Michigan arrived at the South Korean port of Busan on Friday to join the naval exercise.
North Korea considers joint military drills by the United States and South Korea rehearsals for invasion. On Friday, its officials renewed their threats to launch missiles into the waters around Guam, home to major US military bases from which the United States would send major reinforcements should war break out on the Korean Peninsula.
Tillerson said Sunday that his diplomatic efforts would continue even though Trump and Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, have been exchanging bellicose threats and personal insults.
"Those diplomatic efforts will continue until the first bomb drops," Tillerson said on CNN's "State of the Union."
Despite Trump's rebuffing of Tillerson's diplomatic efforts, the secretary of state said that the president preferred making diplomacy a priority as an option to tame the North's nuclear ambitions.
"The president has also made clear to me that he wants this solved diplomatically," Tillerson said. "He is not seeking to go to war."