North Korea has warned of a “second Korean War” if the U.S. and South Korea go ahead with the annual Ulchi-Freedom Guardian military exercises, which are scheduled to begin Monday and run until Aug. 31.
The war games, which started in the 1970s, are built around computer simulations, but they also involve a large number of troops. This year, 17,500 Americans and 50,000 South Koreans will participate, along with personnel from Australia, Britain, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, the Netherlands, and New Zealand.
Rodong Sinmun, the official North Korean newspaper, on Sunday called the drills “reckless nuclear war exercises” that are “driving the situation into the uncontrollable phase of a nuclear war.”
So will history’s next great conflict start in the next few days? Kim Jong Un’s propagandists are talking as if there will be a resumption of fighting on the peninsula after a 64-year hiatus. And tensions over Ulchi-Freedom Guardian closely follow North Korea’s threat to launch missiles around the U.S. territory of Guam.
The regime’s media said last Tuesday that Kim, after reviewing a plan submitted by his senior military officers, had decided not to fire a threatened salvo of four Hwasong-12 intermediate-range missiles in the direction of the strategically located American island in Micronesia. The plan, which had been publicized earlier this month, was especially provocative because the North Koreans had proposed splashing down the missiles within a band only 30 to 40 kilometers off the shoreline.
Kim’s decision not to launch appeared to hand U.S. President Donald Trump, who had made some dire-sounding threats of his own, a victory.
A launch toward Guam, or somewhere else, is still possible, however. The North Korean leader, when announcing he would not launch at this time, did say he could reverse his decision “if the Yankees persist in their extremely dangerous reckless actions.”
Rodong Sinmun’s use of “reckless” on Sunday therefore may be significant. The paper could be signaling that the start of Ulchi-Freedom Guardian justifies the launch of the missiles.
“It’s almost certain that this year’s drills will trigger some kind of reaction from North Korea,” the Associated Press noted correctly. “The question is how strong it will be.”
Some observers, fearing an especially strong reaction from Pyongyang, believe Washington and Seoul should cancel, delay, or scale back the exercises. David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists, for instance, urges the two allies to “postpone or significantly restructure” them.
Beijing agrees with Wright. “The drill will definitely provoke Pyongyang more, and Pyongyang is expected to make a more radical response,” the Global Times, a tabloid controlled by China’s most authoritative publication, the Communist Party’s People’s Daily, stated in an editorial Monday a week ago. “If South Korea really wants no war on the Korean Peninsula, it should try to stop this military exercise.”
Beijing has long tried to end such exercises. Its most recent initiative is the “freeze-for-freeze” proposal, a plan for the North to stop weapons testing if the U.S. and the South stop military exercises.
At the moment, Chinese leaders are said to be upset that Washington and Seoul are rejecting Beijing’s plan out of hand. But the two alliance partners are right to reject the Chinese proposal for two principal reasons.
First, the plan establishes a false equivalence. The North’s testing is in violation of several United Nations Security Council resolutions, various inter-Korean agreements, and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the global pact. On the other hand, Ulchi-Freedom Guardian and the other joint drills, such as the spring exercises Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, are defensive in nature and definitely legal.
Second, the drills are critical for preventing the alliance from becoming “weak and hollow,” as Christopher Hill, a former ambassador to South Korea, put it in June.
“The annual Ulchi-Freedom Guardian exercise is critical for sustaining readiness,” Robert Collins, who has worked with U.S. Forces Korea, told The Daily Beast. “Those who call for the drills to be scaled back are asking the South Korean and American presidents to be prepared, due to reduced preparedness, for far higher casualty rates during any conflict with the North.” At stake, Collins points out, is “the sheer survival of the South.”
In view of all this, it’s possible that Kim Jong Un had thought from the beginning that he would launch the missiles toward Guam during the Ulchi-Freedom Guardian exercise so as to convince others that his weapons program is really defensive in nature.
Kim also gains if he never launches the Guam salvo. The North Korean knows Trump administration officials are trying to decide whether he is deterrable. If they determine he is not, they will use force to take out his weapons sites. Kim, by not launching at Guam last week, may have tried to convince American policymakers he can be reasoned with so Washington will allow him to keep his missiles and nukes.
In any event, we know the crisis may only have been delayed, and unfortunately none of the underlying problems has been solved.
Moreover, fast escalation is always a danger. As Stephen Noerper of Columbia University pointed out to The Wall Street Journal, the peninsula “can go from zero to 10 very quickly.”