Looming War Games Alarm North Korea, but May Be a Bargaining Chip

August 16, 2017



TOKYO — Twice a year, American and South Korean troops get together for large-scale war games to prepare for a possible attack by North Korea. And year after year, the North condemns the joint exercises as a rehearsal for an invasion and demands that they be called off.

Now, with President Trump and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, recently trading threats of nuclear war, another round of the biannual drills is set to begin on Monday in South Korea. They are the first to be conducted since North Korea test-fired missiles that appear capable of hitting the United States, and some are asking whether they might be used as a bargaining chip to persuade the North to freeze its nuclear program.

The United States and South Korea describe the exercises as defensive in nature. North Korea, on the other hand, views them as much more threatening, particularly components that include plans for assassinations of the country’s leadership in the event of an outbreak of war. Last weekend, the North said the exercises were “kicking up war zeal.”

Two years ago, the North proposed a temporary moratorium on nuclear tests if Washington canceled the joint biannual military exercises. The exercises starting on Monday are known as Ulchi-Freedom Guardian and consist mainly of computer simulations carried out in a large bunker in mountains south of Seoul. Much larger war games in the spring usually involve live-fire training and tank movements as well as drills with ships and aircraft. China has also recently suggested a similar two-sided freeze, although the United States has so far refused.

Now, some analysts say, a permutation of that offer may be the best way to defuse the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

In a statement released Tuesday by North Korea’s state media, Kim Jong-un, the country’s leader, said the country would wait before carrying out its threat to launch ballistic missiles into the waters off the American territory of Guam. But in order for the United States to prevent “dangerous military conflict on the Korean Peninsula,” Mr. Kim added, it needed to “show it in action.”

That language is vague enough to encompass a wide range of American behavior. But the military exercises are a continuing flash point, said Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, and curtailing them could be an important gesture that could coax North Korea toward dialogue.

“There is an opportunity here to put an offer on the table,” Mr. Mount said. Even if the United States does not want to suspend or cancel the exercises entirely, he said, “we absolutely should be considering ways to modify their scope.”


American soldiers preparing for a military exercise in April in Paju, South Korea, near the border with the North. Credit Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

But using the exercises as leverage for talks is likely to meet resistance from military and political officials.

“It would take a pretty extraordinary act of leadership to do something like that,” said Robert Carlin, a retired C.I.A. and State Department analyst of North Korea. “You’re going to take a lot of flak from a lot of people.”

Mr. Carlin, who agrees with proposals to scale back the exercises, said many policy makers would regard any concessions on the annual drills as rewarding North Korea’s bad behavior. “You have a huge crowd saying, ‘You’ve given in to this dictator and he will take advantage of us.’”

Heather Nauert, spokeswoman for the State Department, said at a briefing on Tuesday that there was “no moral equivalency” between joint military maneuvers and the North’s missile tests, adding that there would be no change in the exercises.

The United States and South Korean militaries consider the exercises, which have been conducted for more than 40 years, essential for military preparedness considering the volatility in the region and the fact that the Korean War, suspended in 1953, has never officially ended.

The August exercises typically involve around 30,000 American soldiers and about 56,000 South Korean troops. The numbers swell to a total of about 530,000 because government officials and civilians also take part in some of the exercises. In the spring, about 300,000 South Korean soldiers participate, along with about 17,000 American troops.

“Anyone who wants to cancel exercises has to realize that we make ourselves weaker and vulnerable,” said David Maxwell, associate director for the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University and a veteran of five tours in South Korea with the United States Army.

Mr. Maxwell said the United States and South Korea had previously agreed to cancel military maneuvers, known as Team Spirit, in the early 1990s, in exchange for North Korea allowing international inspections of its secret nuclear installations. But the North quickly reneged and continued to develop its nuclear program.

“I think it is a fool’s errand to think that our postponing or canceling exercises will cause a positive reaction from the North,” Mr. Maxwell said.


Rockets being fired in Pocheon, South Korea, in April as part of a drill between South Korea and the United States. Credit Jung Yeon-Je/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

With the United Nations Security Council adopting punishing new sanctions on North Korea earlier this month, some analysts said those measures should be allowed to work first.

“If we concede our military drills as an incentive to North Korea, North Korea will see that as a weakness of South Korea and the United States,” said Shin Beom-chul, a professor of national security at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Seoul and a former defense ministry adviser who has participated in the exercises. “To bring North Korea back to the table, we need pressure and to bring problems to Kim Jong-un.”

But with tensions so high on the peninsula, some analysts say that rigid thinking could lead to miscommunication or military escalation.

The worry, analysts say, is that if the exercises proceed as usual — and if the United States decides to add other maneuvers like flying B-1B bombers over the Korean Peninsula or bringing aircraft carriers into nearby waters — the North may revive its plan to launch missiles near Guam or conduct some other act of aggression.

In November 2010, North Korea shelled the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, killing two soldiers, after the South fired test shots during a military drill. If the North were to react to the joint exercises between South Korea and the United States in a similar way, the violence could spiral out of control.

“I simply want somebody to help cool the temperature,” said Katharine H.S. Moon, a professor of political science and Asian studies at Wellesley College, “to buy time for the U.S. and North Korea to cool off and eventually figure out how to talk, what to talk about, when to talk about it and for what end.”

Even if the two sides could agree to some kind of temporary suspension of the exercises to open the way to talks, said Lee Jong-won, professor of East Asian international relations at Waseda University in Tokyo, “that will be only the beginning of very long and tough negotiations, because the positions of the two are very far apart.”

The question is how to get either side to agree to any kind of concession before talks take place.

“It’s hard to go to a quid pro quo when we’ve not had any form of negotiations to build any sense of trust in the two parties,” said Col. William R. McKinney, a retired Army officer and adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who had extensive experience on the Korean Peninsula during his military career.

But some analysts worry that the longer the United States waits to engage in talks, the more tensions will rise.

If talks do not happen, said John Delury, associate professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, “then the risks of a match falling on the kindling is very real on the Korean Peninsula.”

Su-hyun Lee contributed research from Seoul.


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