Here come the annual US-South Korean war games that freak out North Korea

Key Points
  • The annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises will begin April 1.
  • The massive war games are expected to be on a "scale similar to that of the previous years."
  • North Korea historically objects to the joint exercises, calling them dress rehearsals for an invasion.
South Korean and US soldiers take a position during an annual joint military landing exercise in Pohang, on South Korea's southeast coast.
Ed Jones | AFP | Getty Images

On the heels of President Donald Trump's on-the-spot acceptance to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the Pentagon said that annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises will begin April 1.

The Pentagon added that the drills will be on a "scale similar to that of the previous years," after reports that the exercises would be subdued amid potential discussions with the North.

The exercises usually provoke an agitated response from North Korea, but Pyongyang has yet to weigh in on this year's plans.

"The field exercises are normally what North Korea reacts most strongly to each year, so this may be an effort by the U.S. and South Korea to maintain an environment that is more conducive to dialogue with the DPRK before the upcoming summits," Lisa Collins, a fellow with the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told CNBC. North Korea is officially called the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

The massive war games combine two exercises:

– "Foal Eagle," a drill that involves about 11,500 U.S. and 290,000 South Korean troops.

– "Key Resolve," a computer-simulated training program with approximately 12,200 U.S. and 10,000 South Korean military personnel.

The defensive drills, which have been carried out regularly for nearly 40 years, showcase a spectrum of air, land and sea operations.

Last year, the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier participated, along with assault amphibious vehicles, tanks and other armored trucks.

A U.S. defense official, who declined to be named, told CNBC that a carrier strike group would not take part this year, which is due to planning and not related to the political situation.

Aircraft including F-16s, F-22s, F-35s, and stealth bombers have also deployed in support of "Foal Eagle."

In this 2017 file photo, an F/A-18 fighter lands on the deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson during a South Korea-US joint military exercise in seas east of the Korean Peninsula.
Jung Yeon-Je | AFP | Getty Images

The Pentagon confirmed North Korea was notified about the upcoming drills, which are expected to last until the end of May. The White House has said that Trump intends to meet with Kim by the end of that same month.

Pyongyang has been silent this year despite historically objecting to the joint exercises. The North Korean government has described them as dress rehearsals for an invasion of the Korean peninsula.

"North Korea may have been surprised by Trump's immediate acceptance of the offer to hold a U.S.-DPRK summit and may be carefully planning a response or they could also be dragging out their answer to create even greater suspense and drive more attention to the issue," said Collins of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The intense focus on the summit outcome could then be used as bargaining leverage for negotiations."

The Defense Department, meanwhile, contends that the drills are not meant to provoke the North.

"Our combined exercises are defense-oriented and there is no reason for North Korea to view them as a provocation," Lt. Col. Christopher Logan, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement. "These routine training exercises are not conducted in response to any [North Korean] provocations or the current political situation on the peninsula."

In January, Secretary of Defense James Mattis said the annual spring war games with South Korea would be postponed in order to focus security forces on the Winter Olympics.

The bilateral exercises come at a pivotal moment of diplomacy with North Korea.

On March 8, South Korean envoys met with Trump and key national security officials at the White House and delivered a historic invitation on behalf of Kim Jong Un.

South Korean Marines move into position on a beach during a joint landing operation by US and South Korean Marines in the southeastern port of Pohang, Korea.
Jung Yeon-Je | AFP | Getty Images

The head of South Korea's National Security Office, Chung Eui-yon, said Kim "expressed eagerness to meet President Trump as soon as possible."

Kim also pledged that his country will "refrain from any further nuclear or missile tests" while talks are underway, Chung said. "President Trump appreciated the briefing, and said he would meet him to achieve permanent denuclearization."

Both the South Korean envoy and the White House emphasized that routine joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea would continue as planned.

At present, the North has yet to acknowledge Trump's acceptance of Kim's invitation for talks, which was announced nearly two weeks ago and is slated to occur by the end of May.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon has referred queries about the potential summit to the White House. Addressing reporters last week, chief Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White reiterated the strength of the alliance between U.S. and South Korea.

"There is no space between Washington and Seoul, and so we'll continue to support them and work together," White said.