The US and South Korea will begin their annual joint military exercises this coming week, Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said.
The spread of the coronavirus has forced the allies to scale back an already low-key training programme, which mainly involves computer-simulated war scenarios.
The restricted drills, starting on Tuesday and continuing until next Friday, could still place further strain on diplomatic relations between the allies and North Korea.
The North portrays training exercises similar to those scheduled as invasion rehearsals.
Pyongyang has threatened to abandon stalled nuclear talks if Washington persists with what it perceives as “hostile policies”.
The exercises also follows US President Donald Trump's open complaints over the costs of maintaining 28,500 US troops stationed in South Korea to protect against North Korean threats.
The allies have so far failed to sign a new cost-sharing agreement after the last one expired at the end of 2019.
The drills will involve so-called combined command post training, which is focused on computerised simulations aimed at preparing personnel for various battle scenarios, such as a surprise North Korean attack.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff did not specify how many troops will participate but it is clear the size would be smaller than the summer drills of previous years, which often involved tens of thousands of troops on both sides, and combined computer simulations with field training.
The US and South Korean militaries had cancelled their spring drills following a COVID-19 outbreak in the southern city of Daegu and nearby towns that was stabilised by April.
But South Korea is now dealing with a virus resurgence in the densely populated Seoul metropolitan region, home to around half of the country’s 51 million people.
It led to US Forces Korea declaring the capital and surrounding areas off-limits to personnel who do not live there.
The allies have downsized much of their combined training activity after Mr Trump unilaterally suspended large-scale field training with South Korea after his first summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June 2018.
But nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang have faltered since the collapse of Mr Trump’s second meeting with Mr Kim in February last year in Vietnam, where the Americans rejected North Korea’s demand for major sanctions relief in exchange for a partial surrender of its nuclear capabilities.
The North reacted to last year’s summer drills by ramping up its short-range missile tests and unleashing verbal vitriol toward South Korea, which had lobbied hard to revive nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang.
Cover image: US troops on Montana Range in South Korea in 2019 (Picture: US Department of Defense).