The United States, South Korea, and Japan continue to conduct bilateral and trilateral exercises designed to combat North Korea. This activity has climaxed in Freedom Shield military exercises between the United States and South Korea, which are being held on a grand scale this year after a lengthy break. North Korea, for its part, sees this as an invasion threat and actively bares its teeth through hostile statements and its own combat readiness measures. The author presents a chronicle of the latest phase in this text. There have been many developments…
On March 13, the major US-South Korean joint exercise Freedom Shield has begun, on a par with the Foal Eagle drill that the Moon Jae-in administration cancelled in May 2018.
On March 14, from 7:41 a.m. to 7:51 a.m., two short-range ballistic missiles were fired by North Korea in the direction of the Sea of Japan.
In an effort to improve operational readiness for times of conflict, the South Korean and American Air Forces performed a 36-hour combat practice with continuous sorties on the same day. The drill comprised F-35A, F-15K, and KF-16 aircraft from South Korea.
On March 15, at the border zone 62 kilometers north of Seoul, South Korea and the United States have begun a 12-day combined river-crossing military drills. Participating in the exercise were 400 troops, two Apache attack helicopters and 50 pieces of engineering equipment.
On March 16, at the Sunan military base close to Pyongyang International Airport, North Korea launched a ballistic missile toward the Sea of Japan.
A massive “aerial penetration” exercise on the southern front started on March 16 in Jangseong, 252 kilometers south of Seoul, and Uiryeong, 274 kilometers south of the capital, involving over 1,500 troops and more than 30 aircraft. Simultaneously, some 100 American and South Korean soldiers practiced air attacks utilizing six UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and a US squadron using a Stryker armored vehicle.
Around the same days, special forces from the allies’ Navies wrapped up their regular Flash Knife exercise. “The exercise is known to target an enemy leadership under a crisis scenario.” Working off the head of state’s liquidation is undoubtedly a highly protective move.
On March 17, the Rodong Sinmun stated in an article that “the situation in the Korean peninsula is inching closer to an uncontrollable and dangerous state” and that “the reality clearly shows that the danger of a nuclear war on the Korean peninsula is shifting from a virtual phase to a practical one.” The ICBM launch, in this perspective, is a strong indication that the North Korean Nuclear Armed Forces Policy Act clearly stipulates the principles and conditions for the use of nuclear weapons, allowing for a preemptive strike. “There is no vouch that if the dangerous military provocations of the US and south Korea are continuously overlooked as now, a fierce physical conflict will not occur in the Korean Peninsula where huge forces of both sides stand in acute confrontation with each other. In case such conflict occurs in reality, the US security, to say nothing of the regional stability, will face an uncontrollable, catastrophic phase.”
On March 18 and March 19, North Korea conducted “the combined tactical drill simulating a nuclear counterattack by the units for the operation of tactical nukes”.
More specifically, on March 18 they tested the reliability of the tactical nuclear armed forces’ command, control, and monitoring system several times, practicing the regulations for rapid response and the accuracy of issuing and receiving an order for a nuclear attack in a contingent emergency situation. In other words, handling of charges and carriers as well as the chain of command were worked out.
On March 19, a ballistic missile launch exercise simulating a tactical nuclear assault was staged in front of Minister of National Defence Kang Sun-nam and relevant officials of the Party Central Committee, commanding officers of the Missile General Bureau and relevant personnel of the Nuclear Weapons Institute. The launch simulated “a nuclear strike against a major enemy target,” and the missile was tipped with a test warhead simulating a nuclear warhead. The missile (believed to be an enhanced version of the Kimskander) took off from Cheolsan county in North Pyongan province, hitting the target with pinpoint accuracy at a range of 800 kilometers and an altitude of 800 meters. Kim Jong-un personally conducted the drill again, was with his daughter again, was impressed again, and stated that the thorough tactical exercises considerably strengthened the ability of units and subdivisions to fight in real warfare, because simply having nuclear weapons is insufficient to deter a war. It must be constantly improved and displayed for the fear of enemies. This necessitates regular surprise inspections and drills of the separate forces, allowing fighters to become accustomed to acting in a variety of scenarios and situations.
Meanwhile, analysts have evaluated North Korean photographic data, noticing the odd shape of the flame at the moment of launch – in the form of the Latin letter “V.” Presumably, the flames were reflected off the horizontal surface, implying that the rocket was fired from an underground mine. That means, North Korea is working to diversify its launch platforms. Moreover, according to the North Korea’s account of the nature of the exercises, the North Korean nuclear warhead detonator may have been tested during the launch.
Furthermore, Korean Central News Agency announced on March 18 that the number of young people volunteering to join and rejoin the KPA is steadily increasing across the country because “the move to provoke a nuclear war by the US imperialists and the south Korean puppet traitors, which is the worst-ever in their aggressive nature and scale… is now inching close to the unpardonable red-line.”
The number of volunteers has reportedly surpassed 1.4 million as of March 20, according to a report from the Korean Central News Agency.
On March 19, B-1B strategic bombers were used in a joint drill between the South Korean and American Air Forces.
On March 20, for the first time in five years, South Korean and US marines launched the Ssangyong joint landing practice in the Sea of Japan. The 2023 Ssangyong exercise will take place in Pohang, North Gyeongsang Province, and will run until April 3 as part of the implementation of agreements agreed by the defense ministers of the two nations last year to broaden the scope of joint exercises. Up until 2018, Ssangyong exercises were conducted at the brigade level; this year, the scope has been expanded to the divisional level. The maneuvers were carried out with the participation of a company of British Marine Special Forces, with observers from Australia, France, and the Philippines present. The exercise involves more than 30 ships, including the amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island and the South-Korean Dokdo-class amphibious assault ship, as well as approximately 70 aircraft, including the F-35B and AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, and 50 amphibious assault vehicles. Of course, “the exercises of amphibious landing on the enemy’s coast, which implies North Korea, are purely defensive in nature.”
On March 22, North Korea launched four cruise missiles into the Sea of Japan from the Hamhung area of South Hamgyong Province. They were most certainly Hwasal-2 strategic cruise missiles, also known as North Korean Tomahawks.
On the same day, March 22, John Kirby, US National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, stated that there is no indication that North Korea may use its nuclear weapons to attack the United States or its allies in the near future.
On March 23, a large-scale combined live-fire exercise was performed near the inter-Korean border by South Korea and the United States. The four-day drill took place about 30 kilometers south of the Demilitarized Zone and featured roughly 100 howitzers, armored vehicles, and equipment, as well as more than 800 troops.
To recap the Freedom Shield exercise, while previous programs of similar exercises had featured different maneuvers relating to defense and counterstrike, this time the focus was on counterstrike.
But that is not all. US Navy’s Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier will participate in a joint naval drill in late March, while Warrior Shield field exercises and the 2023 Ssangyong amphibious landing exercise will run until early April.
Also, the next round of escalation will occur in the summer rather than the fall. South Korea and the United States intend to conduct their “largest-ever” combined live-fire drills in June 2023 as part of a program commemorating the 70th anniversary of their military alliance. The drills are “designed to strengthen the allies’ solidarity, demonstrate their militaries’ technological edge and highlight their focus on “realizing peace through strength via action,” according to the Seoul’s defense ministry.” High-tech military vehicles, as well as manned and unmanned weapons, will be deployed.
Of course, Pyongyang will keep watching it, which means that the red line will get a few steps closer.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online journal “New Eastern Outlook.”