US and South Korean warplanes take part in a joint military drill over South Korea on August 31, 2017. Republic of Korea Air Force / Yonhap / via Reuters
US and South Korean warplanes take part in a joint military drill over South Korea on August 31, 2017. Republic of Korea Air Force / Yonhap / via Reuters

Now is the time for a gallant peace gesture from Washington or for Seoul to quit the war games – twice-yearly events, dating back to 1976, in which US and South Korean military forces deploy thousands of troops to simulate various scenarios for conflict with the North.

This summer’s games involved 17,500 US troops and 50,000 South Koreans. To North Korea the games simulate invasion. War games with a specific offensive objective violate the UN Charter, that is, international law.

The current mutual oppositional defiance between Pyongyang and Washington has evoked alarmist reactions and feverish talk from all parties except China, which has sensibly proposed a dual freeze: The US stops its perennial war games; North Korea stops testing missiles and nuclear weapons.

In China this is a moderate position between those sympathetic to North Korea and those who want Beijing to take a hard line as Washington insists. Former US defense secretary William Perry, who once advocated pre-emptive strikes, agrees with a mutual freeze. In an August 1 editorial, The New York Times cited experts who endorse the freeze. So why not?

US pressure on Beijing to pressure Pyongyang without regard to Beijing’s views does not work. The Chinese might do all they can to end North Korea’s tests and move toward denuclearization, but only if Washington gets out of their way and commits to accept whatever Beijing can accomplish. Beijing will not serve as Washington’s surrogate or tolerate provocative second-guessing. And Washington has to forswear its regime-change tactics, another violation of the UN Charter.

For a relevant if imperfect historical analogy, compare Operation Mongoose – a secret program aimed at removing the Communists from power in Cuba – under the US administrations of Dwight Eisenhower and John F Kennedy.

The question remains: Why does Washington insist on continuing the war games? Is it about strategy, military budgets, promoting weapon sales, face? Is the purpose to maximize tensions and so push South Korea away from China and toward Japan?

South Korea invests heavily in the former Manchuria, and its trade with China has reached new heights. Thus Beijing has as large a stake in Seoul’s security as in Pyongyang’s, certainly a larger stake than Washington, which many Koreans view as uninterested in South Korean security. Why does Seoul go along with the games?

In its August 31 print edition, The Wall Street Journal reported that “South Koreans feel sidelined in Pyongyang crisis”. They see Washington dealing with Beijing, Tokyo and Moscow while bypassing Seoul and taking lightly President Moon Jae-in’s insistence that his country’s government must approve military action. Western media similarly tend to minimize or ignore Moon’s position while fanning the rhetorical flames. Is Washington pressuring Seoul (and the media)? Pyongyang’s willingness to negotiate with Washington is likewise played down.

Furthermore, why assume Washington wants peace? President Moon has tried to set some limits on Washington’s aggressiveness. Like Japan, South Korea is an occupied country, and the new president may want to assert some national sovereignty, supposedly protected by international law. More generally, continuing the war games reinforces the wobbly “pivot”, the “presence” of US military power in the West Pacific area to compensate for the decline of US economic importance and moral authority – especially vis-à-vis China.

Claiming it stands on higher ground, Washington says the proposed freeze-for-freeze (games for tests) implies equivalence with the inferior North Koreans and that the US could not possibly lower itself to create that impression. On the contrary, Washington’s own moral authority is diminished commensurately with the gross disparity in the size and power of the antagonists. In any such unequal contest, the more powerful party bears responsibility for making the first move toward settlement.

Tokyo too, unloved in both Koreas, would do well to reflect sincerely on how to play a more peace-oriented role, as its own laws require, rather than exploiting the situation for promoting its own militarism and undermining Article 9 of its constitution, which renounces belligerency. Other nations would do well to bring Article 9 into their own constitutions.

Moss Roberts has been a professor at NYU's Department of East Asian studies since 1968. He has released dozens of publications on Asian language and culture, including multiple books and translations. He currently teaches courses on East Asian civilization and serves as the Director of Undergraduate Studies.

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