South Korean Army K1A1 and US Army M1A2 tanks fire live rounds during a US-South Korea joint live-fire military exercise, at a training field, near the demilitarized zone, separating the two Koreas in Pocheon, South Korea. Photo: Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji
New military drills between South Korea and the US will be scaled back. Here tanks fire live rounds during a joint exercise, at a training field, near the demilitarized zone in April 2017. Photo: Reuters / Kim Hong-Ji

South Korean and American forces kicked off reduced-scale military drills in South Korea on Monday, just days after a highly anticipated North Korea-US summit in Hanoi collapsed without agreement.

The fact that the drills have been pared back suggests that South Korea and the United States wish to maintain the eased tensions that have prevailed around the peninsula since the beginning of 2018, and are keeping the door open for further dialog.

More broadly, the cutback war games, combined with the ongoing North Korean missile and nuclear test moratorium, may point to the near-term future of peninsula peace moves in the aftermath of the failed summit on Thursday.

Even so, the current situation, post-Hanoi, still leaves inter-Korean commercial and economic engagement nullified. For multiple reasons, the status quo is not an end game.

The spring drills, which North Korea has consistently maintained are preparations for an invasion, were suspended last year; this year, they have been rebranded and reduced in scale. The new Dong Maeng (“Alliance”) drills replace the previous Key Resolve exercises. Both are command post-war games that use computer simulations rather than troops on the ground.

Participants are South Korea, United States and small contingents from some of the “Sending States” – the military coalition which, under the United Nations banner and US command, fought with South Korea in the 1950-53 war against North Korea and China.

“Exercise Dong Maeng provides us the opportunity to train and rehearse with our Republic of Korea, United States, and United Nations Sending State Partners,” the chairman of the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Park Han-Ki, and the Combined Forces Command commander, General Robert B “Abe” Abrams said in a media statement. “It is important for professional armies to train and maintain to a standard of readiness. These exercises are crucial in sustaining and strengthening the alliance.”

Shorter exercises, test moratorium

While the statement did not list numbers of participating troops, it has been widely reported in Korean media that the exercises are smaller in scale than Key Resolve, and may have removed the counterattack portion of the previous exercise – the segment of the drills which North Korea considers invasion planning. The spokesperson for US forces did not respond to Asia Times’ request for details.

Dong Maeng is also slightly shorter: it lasts from March 4-12, non-inclusive of the weekend, compared to the two-week Key Resolve.

Last year’s exercise was suspended in what was widely seen as a trust-building measure to reinforce the dialog progress that was initiated after North Korean attended the Winter Olympics, although US President Donald Trump has controversially cited costs as the reason.

Meanwhile, despite the failure of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Trump to reach an agreement in Hanoi, there has been no indication that North Korea will reverse its self-imposed moratorium on missile and nuclear tests. Trump has frequently praised the moratorium, and thanked Kim for it in Hanoi.

North Korean media has not yet responded to the new drills.

With North Korea having conducted six atomic tests between 2006 and 2017, there is no foreseeable need for more. But some segments of the country’s intercontinental ballistic missile program, notably its targeting systems and re-entry vehicles, do need further testing.

“They probably don’t need to conduct the underground nuclear tests,” Daniel Pinkston, an international relations professor at Troy University, told Asia Times. “But for missiles, even if your design has been verified, and has gone into production and you have deployed the systems – every kind of weapon system has to be tested for reliability occasionally. So at some point, there are reasons to test.”

In addition, there are political considerations surrounding any resumption of testing. “They will make those calculations in Pyongyang, assessing what the political costs and benefits are,” said Pinkston. “But they can stay put for a while.”

Nobody holding their breath

Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kukmin University, was unclear how long the moratorium can last, suggesting that North Korea may resume necessary tests once the unpredictable Trump leaves the White House. “It is now a matter to pacify Trump and avoid confrontation, but in the future, in the absence of a US president who might order a strike, they can perfect their systems,” he said.

Calling the gap between political and technical reasons for tests “a false dichotomy,” Lankov said: “It is always a combination; the generals want to see how a new toy will fly, while the leaders will choose the moment that is most favorable.”

After Hanoi, it is unclear where, when or even whether a dialog process between North Korea and the United States will resume. Meanwhile, the strategic near-term outlook for the peninsula – essentially, a continuum of last year – leaves inter-Korean commercial and economic engagement almost entirely blocked by sanctions.

During their October summit in Pyongyang, South Korean President Moon Jae-in invited Kim to visit Seoul. But with North Korea desperate for South Korea to help it upgrade its road, rail and power infrastructure, as well as permit inbound tourism, and with the Moon administration seeking to increase inter-Korean momentum, there is pressure for an easing of sanctions.

“The South Koreans can exploit existing loopholes but they are small and are not numerous,” Lankov said. “They can, for example, send humanitarian aid, but North Korea does not really need it anymore. They need investment.”

All this suggests that the status quo, under pressure from different angles, will not continue over the long term.

“It is sustainable for a while,” said Pinkston. “Until it is not.”

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