Every spring and autumn, inter-Korean relations are notoriously tested by the annual US-South Korea joint military exercises. Pyongyang has long criticized the South Korea-US military exercises, calling them a “rehearsal for an invasion of the North”, while Seoul and Washington emphasize their regularity and defensive nature. The level of escalation may vary depending on what US and South Korean strategists are working out, but in any case we are faced with at least an exchange of sharp statements, and in severe cases journalists start writing that the Korean peninsula is on the brink of war again.
2021 was no exception, but the author has followed the autumn situation closely because it was a more serious marker of the state of inter-Korean relations than the restoration of the line of communication.
The exercise itself went off without a hitch in the form of a computer simulation and staff game, with no actual movement of troops. Seoul and Washington decided to scale the exercise back because of the coronavirus pandemic. Crisis management training took place from 10 to 13 August using a computer simulation exercise, and from 16 to 26 August a command post exercise, also based on computer simulation without field training. According to Conservative MP Shin Won-sik, the exercise involve only 30 per cent of the number of troops mobilized during the spring exercise in March.
As the author has previously written, prior to the exercise, Kim Yo-jong viewed the August 1 event as “an unwelcome prelude that seriously undermines the will of top leaders in the North and South who want to see a step towards restoring mutual trust, and that further clouds the prospects for North-South relations.” In response, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby issued a statement on 3 August stressing the continued close cooperation of the ROK and the importance of the exercise in terms of military readiness and “countering the current threat.” Kirby stressed that all decisions regarding joint South Korea-US military exercises will only be taken in close cooperation with the ROK government. He specifically added that there had been no request from the South Korean side to suspend, cancel or postpone the exercise, although this had caused quite a serious discussion in South Korea itself.
For example, 74 Democratic MPs have signed a petition asking for the exercise to be postponed. As one of the main lobbyists for the postponement of the exercise, MP Sol Hong said, “the government should make the most of this important time to provide an opportunity to resume the inter-Korean peace process.” Director of National Intelligence Service Park Jie-won volunteered to appear before the National Assembly Intelligence Committee and told lawmakers that he “understands the importance of the joint exercise, but there was a need to consider a flexible response for the overall picture of continuing the peace momentum and denuclearization.” According to him, in the event of an exercise, DPRK provocations are imminent, up to and including a submarine ballistic missile test. This has drawn criticism from the opposition, with Conservative MP Ha Tae-kyung even saying that “the spy agency has become subordinate to the North.”
As the conservative JoongAng Ilbo wrote, “a military exercise cannot serve as a bargaining chip for inter-Korean talks”. However, some in the ruling camp, including Democratic Party Chairman Song Young-gil, also advocated that the exercise should go ahead as scheduled: “If tangible discussions begin between the US and the North or inter-Korean talks are fully resumed, the issue can be discussed. However, it is only due to the restoration of hotlines that it is problematic to postpone the exercise.”
However, Moon Jae-in has taken a more cautious position and on 4 August allegedly instructed the defense minister to consult with the US on various options, a “senior presidential official on condition of anonymity” told reporters.
Public opinion was also split. 50.4 per cent of participants in a 6 August Realmeter poll disagreed with calls to postpone the exercise. 45.3% of respondents were in favor of postponing the exercise.
How did the DPRK react to the exercise? On 10 August, on the first day of the exercise, Kim Yo-jong again made a rather harsh statement. The DPRK leader’s sister noted that the aggressive nature of the joint exercises did not depend on their scale or form. The North Korean policy of the Joe Biden administration, which implies diplomatic engagement and dialogue without preconditions, is described in the statement as “nothing short of hypocrisy and a disguise for military invasion ambitions.” Thus, “peace and security on the Korean peninsula can only be ensured by real deterrence, not by words”, and the DPRK will, as before, respond with good for good and force for force. “We will give stronger impetus to further strengthen the absolute power of deterrence to counter the daily US military threat.”
At the same time, the leader’s sister expressed “serious regret at the treacherous behavior of the South Korean rulers.”
The next day, 11 August, even harsher rhetoric was delivered by Kim Yong-chol, head of the United Front Department of the Central Committee of the Korean Workers’ Party. “The South Korean authorities have gone into a frenzy – once again deploying military exercises of which our state is an adversary, turning their back on a chance of turnaround that was hard-won with unanimous expectations inside and outside the country. They have exposed themselves – they have chosen alliance with external forces rather than friendship with their compatriots, they have chosen aggravation rather than relief, confrontation rather than improvement of relations.” And if so, then “we also should now make a clearer decision accordingly, so that they feel hourly what dangerous choices they have made, and what a dangerous security crisis they themselves are approaching to as a result of the wrong choices.”
Nevertheless, at the time of writing, no retaliatory action has been taken, apart from harsh statements. Except that since 11 August, North Korea has not returned phone calls from South Korea on communication lines and military hotlines.
While it is unacceptable for North Korea to witness exercises that violate the 2018 inter-Korean agreements, it can be said that Pyongyang responds to words with words and actions with actions.
Perhaps it is also the case that once again the parties have failed the Full Operational Capability (FOC) test, which is a condition to hand over control of their troops to Seoul in actual combat conditions. The COVID-19 pandemic makes it impossible to meet this condition for the second year straight.
However, some authors believe that Kim Jong-un wanted to respond more harshly, but changed his mind. North Korea issued a navigational warning for the northeastern East Sea that was in effect on 15-16 August. Such warnings are usually issued before missile launches or other weapons tests to warn ships of the danger of entering certain areas, but no ballistic missile launches or artillery firings have taken place during the period in question.
Moreover, there have been reports that Kim Jong-un’s private jet either flew from Pyongyang to Wonsan or flew and then turned around. It is clear that there are not only military but also industrial facilities in the area and it cannot be said with 100% certainty that Kim was about to conduct a missile launch but changed his mind at the last minute. It may have had other purposes and other reasons.
Other experts predict that, should the path of aggravation continue, Pyongyang will do what Kim Yo-jong promised back in March – abandon the signed inter-Korean agreement in the military sphere, permanently bury the inter-Korean tourism project in the Kumgang Mountains and dissolve the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland as the landmark organization for such activity on the part of the DPRK.
The author would like to point out another thing. Following North Korea, China demanded that the exercise be halted. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a corresponding statement, urging the US and the ROK to refrain from any actions that could cause destructive consequences and escalate tensions on the Korean Peninsula. This is quite an important point, as the Chinese side has not previously spoken so openly about the exercise.
Seoul responded that the Chinese objections were “unusual.” They say most countries are well aware that the exercise is defensive in nature and does not pose a threat to others.
On 11 August, Chinese Ambassador to South Korea Xing Haiming called for concerted efforts to consolidate peace on the Korean peninsula, calling the maneuvers the most vivid expression of US hostile policy towards the DPRK and warning of a serious security crisis.
As a result, it can be said that the “autumn aggravation” went more smoothly than most others. Harsh statements have not yet been followed by action, and the northerners are well aware of the lack of subjectivity that affects Seoul’s ability to make autonomous decisions. As for the president, he has on the one hand thrown a bone to supporters of a more conciliatory course towards the North, while on the other, he has conducted an exercise, albeit in a greatly reduced format, especially since the coronavirus pandemic is a good excuse for why nothing more has happened.
Apart from that, the author hopes that next spring will follow a similar format and both against the background of the pandemic and the fierce political struggle in the run-up to the presidential elections on 9 March 2022, the Democratic Party will try not to look for unnecessary problems. This means that the informal “pause that has existed on the Korean peninsula since late 2019” will continue. Of course, this is worse than the two Koreas taking active steps towards each other, but they are unlikely. In any event, a “pause” is much better than a possible exacerbation.
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”.