SEOUL—Let the war games begin! The United States and South Korea announced Tuesday that joint military exercises with the unwieldy titles Foal Eagle and Key Resolve will start, as it happens, on April Fool’s Day. And the announcement would have you believe that this annual ritual is pretty much the same as always. Except, of course, that it is not.
U.S. and South Korean commanders are secretive about what their massed forces will be doing, when and where. No one seems to know how to conduct the exercises without putting at risk carefully wrought understandings about upcoming summits.
Might North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un have a change of heart after having told a South Korean delegation to Pyongyang that he’d be willing to meet President Donald Trump and talk about “denuclearization”? In North Korea’s first statement about the possible talks, on Wednesday the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) warned hardliners in both countries not to "spoil the atmosophere."
“We do like to remind that it is time for all to approach everything with prudence and with self-control and patience," KCNA said.
But if the South Korean and American militaries perform as they have for years, B1, B2, and B52 bombers from Guam will soon be soaring and in some cases roaring across the Korean Peninsula. And in the current enviroment, the biggest challenge for the brass will be not the war games as such but the public relations exercise in keeping them as low-key as possible.
The most immediate nightmare is that of disrupting next month’s summit between Kim and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, which is to be followed by Kim-Trump in May. Right now, the Kim-Moon summit appears a virtual certainty, but almost anything could ruin plans for the big act that is supposed to come afterward.
That concern means there will be no news, if the Americans can help it, about the kind of shows put on in the past, with U.S. Navy SEALS practicing “decapitation” missions, showing how they would take out the North Korean leadership. And what about the usual photo-ops as Marines swarm over the beaches and war planes take off from carriers close to shore?
The North Koreans may accept the exercises as a necessary evil involving 28,500 U.S. troops already in Korea and another 3,000 from the U.S. and bases in Japan. But any perceived provocation might tempt them to revert to form and shout out their need for nukes and missiles for defense against invasion.
And in the meantime, there’s this: it took two weeks for the Americans to hear a word from the North Koreans themselves about… anything. And even the KCNA statement on Wednesday did not refer specifically to a US-North Korea summit, but merely to "a sign of change" in relations with Washington. So it remains quite possible that Kim Jong Un is playing games with the South Koreans and with Trump, feigning willingness to talk as a tactical ruse.
The lack of direct communications between the Americans and North Koreans means no one even knows where Trump and Kim might meet. The Americans doubt they’ll be shaking hands in the truce village of Panmunjom, 40 miles north of Seoul, where Moon and Kim are to have their summit as the war games wind down.
Yes, Panmunjom is where the armistice ending the Korean War was signed in July 1953, but the scene also evokes some nasty memories. In 1976, two American officers were killed there with axes wielded by North Koreans on a tree-cutting mission. Nor is there any chance that Trump will visit Kim in Pyongyang—a mission that would make him a supplicant paying homage to one whom he was not long ago calling “rocket man.” Cities in China or Russia seem out of the question as well.
With such sparse communications from the North Koreans, guesses about the setting for the summit ranged from the UN in New York to Switzerland, where Kim once went to school.
Another possibility is Stockholm, where North Korea’s foreign minister, Ri Yong Ho and Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström met last weekend. This week, delegations from North Korea, South Korea, and the United States met in Finland, but denuclearization was not on the agenda, according to Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini.
In fact, at this stage of the fragile new dialogue the subject of immediate personal and symbolic importance is the fate of three U.S. citizens imprisoned in Pyongyang for reasons that are far from clear.
Right now, the question is whether those three, all Korean-Americans, have a chance of going home as a dividend of a U.S.-North Korea summit.
The longest held, Dong Chul Kim, had to “confess” to espionage after his arrest in October 2015. That was before the arrest of Otto Warmbier, the student who was picked up at Pyongyang airport for tearing down a banner in his hotel, forced to make a tearful confession, and 17 months later sent home in a coma before dying.
The Americans place the release of the three as the highest single priority after denuclearization—a gesture that would show Kim’s genuine willingness to cooperate.
In the meantime, forget about a grand finale to the war games, to which diplomats, officials, and journalists normally are invited every year to watch planes bomb and strafe the hills while cannons blast away within distant earshot of the North Koreans. The goal is to keep off the front pages, even if the rumble of modern warfare can never be obliterated entirely.