U.S. and South Korean forces are expected to focus more on offensive maneuvers and potential “decapitation” — surgical strikes that would be aimed at hitting North Korean leaders, for example — during this year’s Ulchi Freedom Guardian joint military drills, which began today.

Generally, the mostly computer-generated scenarios and training focus on responding to a North Korean invasion. But this year, given the rising tensions with a nuclear-armed North Korea, U.S. and South Korean military planners opted to explore offensive military options as well.

As the Nikkei Asian Review reports:

American and South Korean forces have based their joint drills on Operations Plan 5015, which includes a pre-emptive strike on nuclear and missile facilities of the North, according to the South’s Yonhap News Agency. They are said to have categorized potential signs of a North Korean attack into three threat levels and to be planning a unique pre-emptive response to each.

OPLAN 5015 was drafted in 2015 and incorporated for the first time into joint drills in the spring of 2016. While deposing the current government in Pyongyang is believed to be the ultimate goal, it is also said to contain plans for keeping the North’s nuclear and biological weapons from making their way to a third country, as well as plans for keeping the population from panicking. …

The two allies may also be rehearsing a decapitation strike — a mission specifically designed to remove Kim from power. The South Korean government has neither confirmed nor denied this, fueling speculation that this year’s exercises are taking a more offensive focus.

South Korea is contributing about 50,000 troops to the exercises, while the U.S. reduced its forces to 17,500, about 30 percent fewer than last year, likely as a way of dialing down the tension with Pyongyang.

Why it’s on our radar: Steve Bannon, former chief strategist to President Trump, reportedly got into some hot water with his former boss over comments he made in a magazine interview earlier this month in which he said there are no viable military options to deal with North Korea — none that would prevent a massive North Korean counterattack against the South Korean capital of Seoul, home to around 25 million people. “They got us,” he declared.

The Trump administration — and the Pentagon, and the South Koreans — beg to differ. Bannon is right in that North Korea would very likely respond to any preemptive strike, but that assumes the North Korean leadership, to include leader Kim Jong-un, was still intact. What if it isn’t? What if “Dear Leader” is taken out of the equation?

Obviously some within the Trump administration, the Pentagon, and South Korean military and political leadership believe a successful ‘decapitation’ operation may result in a quick North Korean surrender — assuming that the surviving North Korean military and civilian leadership would either have no stomach for the fight or are not permitted to act indepedent of Kim.