Another event is approaching that may turn out to be a new reason for inter-Korean aggravation or at least a marker of the current state of inter-Korean relations. Yet another US-ROK joint exercise.
Let’s recall: The United States and the ROK usually conduct major joint exercises twice a year in March and August and smaller-scale activities throughout the year. In 2020, they were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, and the spring 2021 program was held in an abbreviated mode for the same reason.
North Korea has long and periodically condemned the field training exercises of Seoul and Washington, calling them a rehearsal for invasion and calling on the US to stop its hostile policy, considering them a violation of the inter-Korean agreements prohibiting hostility against each other. The South and the US reject such claims, stating that the exercises were purely defensive.
Several sources say the following exercise may begin around August 10-16 and last three weeks in computer simulations without a field phase. Earlier, the South Korean military said that such issues as the epidemic situation in the country, inter-Korean relations, and the transfer of operational control over its troops to Seoul would be considered when planning the upcoming exercises. Both parties had planned to conduct a trial last year, but they could not do so in the face of a pandemic.
Meanwhile, many civil society organizations and experts call for their cancellation to move the stalled denuclearization talks forward.
A group of lawmakers from the ruling party issued a statement calling for the exercise to be postponed, and a senior advisor to the President on unification went so far as to suggest that it should be.
Details are unclear at this point, but most likely, nothing will be canceled. On July 3, 2021, John Saffel, US Defense Department spokesman for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said there were no plans to reschedule the exercise. He noted that maintaining military readiness is a top priority for US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and joint exercises are an essential way to ensure that the alliance is combat-ready. On July 5, Boo Seung-chan, spokesman for South Korea’s Defense Ministry, said that their implementation’s timing, scope, and methods have not been determined and are still under discussion.
Meanwhile, North Korea has renewed its criticism of the exercises in the propaganda media: On July 13, the Uriminzokkiri website issued a warning to South Korea and the United States, stating that drills and peace cannot exist simultaneously. The piece cited previous play war in March and Seoul’s participation in the Pacific Vanguard joint maritime exercise, the supply of materials and equipment to upgrade the US air defense base Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in Seongju County, North Gyeongsang, and the deployment of the RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aerial surveillance aircraft.
Another propaganda website, Meari, also accused the South Korean government of “investing taxpayer money in the introduction and development of weapons without taking into account the deteriorating conditions of the South Korean people with the rapid spread of the virus.”
On July 30, Kim Jong-un presided over the first-ever seminar of military commanders and political officers and accused “hostile forces” of intensifying “frantic and persistent war drills for aggression”. Brother was followed by his sister: On July 1, Kim Yo-jong stressed that the exercise should be seen “as an unwelcome prelude that seriously undermines the will of the top leaders of the North and the South to see a step toward restoring mutual trust, and that further clouds the prospects for North-South relations.”
On August 2, Boo Seung-chan repeated that nothing had been decided yet: Seoul and Washington are “consulting closely given the changing situation,” including such factors as the rapidly spreading coronavirus, maintaining joint combat readiness, creating conditions for Seoul to transfer operational control of its troops in wartime, and maintaining diplomatic efforts to build peace on the Korean Peninsula. The US Department of Defense also said that a mutually agreed-upon decision would be made. At the same time, the ROK Ministry of Unification said that South Korea would consider joint military drills with the United States in a “wise and flexible” manner so as not to increase tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
The ROK attributes the “undecideds” to the fact that “the government is experiencing an internal divide. The ROK president believes that the only thing that can now arouse his rating is the development of success on the inter-Korean track after the two Koreas reestablished their lines of communication on July 27, 2021. “Sources familiar with ongoing discussions between the allies report” that Seoul is convincing Washington that holding a full-scale exercise would irritate the North and hinder efforts to resume dialogue with the recalcitrant regime. Moon Jae-in’s administration hopes to make a breakthrough in stalled relations with Pyongyang before Moon leaves office next year.“
In this context, it has been widely reported that “an anonymous high-ranking official of the Unification Ministry mentioned the need to suspend the annual joint military exercises of Korea and the United States. Something similar was written in social media by Sul Hoon, a Democrat MP and member of the parliamentary committee on defense. Officially, the Ministry of Unification favors a “flexible approach”; “the combined military drills should not lead to heighten military tension on the Korean Peninsula under any circumstances,” ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo said on August 2. Those who propose postponing exercises or reducing their scale as much as possible believe that the postponement of exercises is unlikely to seriously undermine the country’s defense capabilities. In addition, there is a universal justification in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this context, Combined Command Post Training (CCPT), set to take place indoors, is more vulnerable to mass infections than outdoor training. The safety of military personnel should be the priority. As Sul Hoon writes, “There is no need to forcibly conduct joint exercises when the pandemic situation worsens.
Personally, the President is definitely against mass drills – back in May, during a meeting with political party leaders, he noted that mass drills are not feasible because of the pandemic. And on August 4, Moon Jae-in instructed the defense chief to consult cautiously with the United States on whether to conduct their joint military exercises this month as planned. A Blue House official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
According to conservatives, “the cancellation or reduction of joint exercises in the last few years has only strengthened Pyongyang’s position” and not only undermines the joint military readiness of the allies but also weakens the basis for US troops in the ROK. The conservative JoongAng Daily writes openly, “we wonder whether Moon has accepted Kim’s demand to suspend the exercises in exchange for the resumption of inter-Korean dialogue. “Restarting talks could be necessary to help break the deadlock in inter-Korean relations and denuclearization talks. But a joint drill cannot be used as a bargaining chip to rekindle dialogue. Suppose Seoul wants to resume a sincere dialogue with Pyongyang. In that case, it must first demand that it stop such “treacherous actions” as developing tactical nuclear weapons and building up its submarine-launched missile capabilities.
2022 presidential candidate Yoo Seong-min went further: “Since when did Kim Yo-jong become South Korea’s commander-in-chief?” Other experts in this camp (e.g., Moon Sung-mook, a senior researcher at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy) see in her words a desire to stir up conflict not only between South Korea and the United States but also among South Korean politicians.
In addition, Seoul’s desire to reduce the scope of upcoming maneuvers runs counter to its desire to gain wartime Operational Control Authority to South Korea (OPCON) as soon as possible. This independence was no less a resounding promise of the current president. Still, to assess the readiness of South Korea to return to OPCON, it is vital to test the full operational capability of the South Korean armed forces (FOC), and computer simulations are not the only way to do it. Therefore, the Department of Defense stresses that the question of what will happen to the exercises is within the exclusive competence of the military departments of the United States and South Korea, which will make the relevant decisions.
Apparently, it was in this context that on August 2, 2021, Song Young-gil, Leader of the center-liberal Democratic Party who does not belong to the President’s faction, called on South Korea and the United States to continue the exercises as planned. During a meeting of the Supreme Council of the Party he said: “We are not conducting large-scale exercises with troop mobilization but are preparing exercises following the COVID-19 pandemic situation and the peace process on the Korean Peninsula. The upcoming exercise does not include field training elements and consists mainly of command center drills and computer simulation training,”
At the same time, experts are trying to predict the response of the DPRK. KIM Yong-hyun, Professor Department of North Korean Studies Dongguk University, believes that “North Korea’s chances of an immediate military provocation are slim, even if the exercises go according to schedule.” Others believe that in the event of a full-scale exercise, the North could test a submarine-based ballistic missile or (more likely) launch short-range missiles.
Either way, it won’t be long before the exercises begin, and it will soon become clear what Seoul’s choice and Pyongyang’s response were.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.