Are tensions cooling in the Korean Peninsula? The United States and South Korea will find out Monday, when the two allies are scheduled to start joint military exercises that are known to anger North Korea, sometimes triggering a show of force.
This year’s war games come at a particularly delicate moment. There have been exchanges of war rhetoric between President Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has further complicated the situation, by stating in an interview there’s “no military option” in North Korea while floating a possible deal with Pyongyang that would leave Seoul hanging.
Amid all this back and forth, the U.S. and South Korean military will simulate warfare with North Korea from Aug. 21 to 31, well aware that North Korea could respond with another missile test.
“Over the course of the next two weeks I expect tensions to escalate,” said Scott A. Snyder, a Korea specialist with the Council on Foreign Relations who previously was the Asia Foundation's representative in Seoul. “This is always a sensitive issue, but it is more hair-trigger as the North Koreans are very sensitive to the likely additional nuclear-capable aircraft flyovers.”
The United States says biannual exercises are defensive in nature, but North Korea and China have long criticized them as a provocation and an affront to regional security.
“There certainly will be some reaction,” said J.D. Williams, a retired Marine colonel and defense policy researcher at the RAND Corporation in California. He said he wouldn’t be surprised if North Korea conducted some kind of missile launch — not a test but a defiant demonstration of might.
North Korea last week threatened to fire four missiles toward Guam, a U.S. territory, a rebuttal to President Donald Trump’s “fire and fury” remarks of Aug. 8. North Korea’s Kim later backed off that threat, saying he’d watch “the foolish and stupid conduct of the Yankees” before deciding on the launch, a decision that Trump quickly tweeted was “very wise and well reasoned.”
The exchange suggested that cooler heads were prevailing in the latest U.S. standoff with North Korea. But next week’s war games could rekindle hostilities. On Thursday, North Korean state media declared that the military exercises will “further drive the situation on the Korean Peninsula into a catastrophe.”
Held every fall in South Korea, the Ulchi-Freedom Guardian war games are the world’s largest computerized command and control exercise. Some 30,000 U.S. soldiers and more than 50,000 South Korean troops usually take part, along with hundreds of thousands of first responders and civilians, some practicing for a potential chemical weapons attack.
The exercise, along with one in March, often triggers anti-war protests in South Korea and condemnation from China. While Chinese President Xi Jinping has been noticeably cool toward Kim Jong Un, and has been critical of North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons, China has long wanted the United States to shrink its military footprint in Asia, including some 12 bases in South Korea and Japan.
Over the course of the next two weeks I expect tensions to escalate
Scott A. Snyder, Council on Foreign Relations
In an editorial Monday, China’s Global Times newspaper, an arm of the Communist Party’s People’s Daily, lambasted the decision by the United States and South Korea to go ahead with Monday’s exercises.
“The drill will definitely provoke Pyongyang more, and Pyongyang is expected to make a more radical response,” the newspaper said. “If South Korea really wants no war on the Korean Peninsula, it should try to stop this military exercise.”
North Korea has been known to react strongly during the biannual war games. In 2014, the north fired off scud missiles during the March exercises held by the U.S.-South Korean command, called Foal Eagle.
During the 2015 Ulchi-Freedom Guardian exercises, North Korea and South Korea exchanged artillery and rocket fire over their border. That exchange came after two South Korean soldiers were maimed stepping on land mines in the Demilitarized Zone. South Korea accused North Korean soldiers of sneaking across the border and planting the land mines.
China and Russia have been urging the United States to consider a “freeze for freeze” agreement to reduce tensions. In such a deal, Pyongyang would agree to suspend its tests of missiles and nuclear weapons, and Washington and Seoul would agree to suspend large-scale military exercises.
U.S. military experts say such a deal would give a lopsided advantage to North Korea, which could continue its military training even as the U.S.-South Korea exercises were suspended. “It is hard to imagine why the United States would accept that, because of the vulnerability it would create,” said Bruce Bennett, a senior defense researcher at RAND.
In a media briefing on Tuesday, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the United States will continue to hold joint exercises with South Korea.
The next day, the administration’s Korea plans were rocked by quotes attributed to Bannon, the White House Chief Strategist. In an interview with the American Prospect, Bannon said he might consider a deal in which North Korea suspended its nuclear buildup with verifiable inspections and the United States removed its troops from the peninsula.
The comments come as many in South Korea are uncertain about Washington’s commitment to the 64-year old U.S.-South Korean alliance. As McClatchy reported last month, numerous South Korean lawmakers support their country developing its own nuclear weapons program, to counter the threat from the north.
South Korea has two major concerns with the Trump administration. One is a question about commitment. The other is the potential for Trump to launch a preemptive military strike on North Korea without consulting Seoul, which would bear the brunt of Pyongyang’s response.
On Tuesday, South Korean President Moon Jae In sent a blunt warning to the White House. “No one should be allowed to decide on a military action on the Korean Peninsula without South Korean agreement,” Moon said in a televised speech.
On Thursday, after meeting with Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Moon said he’d been assured South Korea would be consulted before any military action is taken.