US and South Korean soldiers on exercise in Yeoncheon-gun, South Korea. Photo: AFP / Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images

SEOUL – The US and South Korea kicked off spring military drills on the peninsula on Monday, hours after reaching a long-delayed cost-sharing deal for the cost of American GIs stationed in Korea.

The dual developments suggest a return to “business as usual” in the alliance, with the new Joe Biden administration reversing related policies of the Donald Trump administration.

Trump had halted a number of drills on grounds of expense but also to provide space for diplomacy with North Korea, which customarily takes offense at the joint exercise. Moreover, cost-sharing talks had been frozen for well over a year, after the Trump administration demanded major rises in South Korea’s expenditure in 2020.

One question is how or whether North Korea will react to the drills. Some experts believe that the regime, beset with multiple internal problems, will be unwilling to court the wrath of the new US government.

Another question is whether broader bilateral issues, as regards Seoul’s stance toward both Pyongyang and Beijing, will be managed as adroitly as defense issues appear to have been.

Drills back on

This year’s joint war games are restricted to Combined Command Post Training exercises, which are virtual rather than on-ground. No outdoor exercises will take place. Featuring a “minimum level” of troops, the drills continue until March 18.

Spring war games are usually the largest annual drills conducted by US and South Korean troops on the peninsula, though smaller exercises take place throughout the year. They are conducted in two formats: computer simulations and live exercises featuring live troops and substantial air, sea and land assets.

North Korea routinely lambasts them as preparation for invasion. The drills, and North Korea’s responses, have consistently led to spikes in regional tensions.

Kim Jong Un presides over the first enlarged meeting of the 8th Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party of Korea in Pyongyang. It is unknown whether President Biden will agree to a meeting with Kim. Photo: KCNA via KNS/AFP/Stringer

Customarily, the spring drills are held annually but did not take place in 2020 due to Covid-19, nor in 2019, when North Korea-South Korea-US diplomacy was still in play.

The lack of war games led to criticism in conservative circles and among some retired military officers on both sides of the Pacific. They complained that the failure to conduct joint training could erode capabilities.

Talking up the minimalist nature of this year’s exercises, Seoul publicly appealed for restraint from Pyongyang.

Noting that the drills are scaled back in terms of both size and type, Ministry of National Defense spokesperson Lee Jong-joo urged “North Korea to show a wise and flexible approach,” according to Yonhap news agency.

The question now is whether North Korea will respond with either a military provocation, such as a missile launch or will unleash rhetorical barrages.

South Korean and US soldiers watching from an observation post during a joint live firing drill in 2017. Photo: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP

Coming as the Biden administration is engaged in a policy review of North Korean affairs, which is expected to continue until as late as June, and with a raft of internal problems, experts reckon Pyongyang may remain quiet.

“If I were in the Politbureau in Pyongyang, when I wake up in the morning the first thing on my agenda is not what Joe Biden is doing, but the challenges of Covid-19, economic sanctions and economic malaise,” Dan Pinkston, a Seoul-based international relations expert with Troy University, told Asia Times.

“I don’t think they are looking for any external problems that they could avoid. I think they are more concerned with forex, food and fuel shortages.”

Alliance re-set

The US and South Korea also announced that they had reached an agreement on the cost-sharing expenses to be paid by South Korea for the 28,500 US troops stationed in South Korea, ending a freeze in talks that had dragged on for more than a year.

The agreement was reached after three days of face-to-face discussions in Washington, the Associated Press reported, and resulted in a “negotiated increase” in South Korea’s share of the cost.

No details have been released about the amount, though that should become clear when the agreement is raised in South Korea’s National Assembly, where President Moon Jae-in’s Democratic Party holds an absolute majority.

The deal looks to have bought to an end an uneasy period for the alliance, which has been in place since 1953, the year the Korean War ended.

US President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in during a meeting in New York on September 24, 2018, a day before the start of the General Debate of the 73rd session of the General Assembly. Photo: AFP/Nicholas Kamm
US President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in didn’t always see eye-to-eye. Photo: AFP/Nicholas Kamm

The Trump administration, seeking to raise more money from what it saw as US allies’ failure to contribute enough for their own defense, had demanded a massive increase over the amount paid in 2019, which was just short of $1 billion.

Unconfirmed US sources reported that the increase demanded for 2020 was as much as five times that paid in 2019. Negotiations went nowhere for over a year, putting South Korea in arrears for 2020.

Given the change of administration in Washington, the resolution of the cost-sharing issue came as no surprise.

“I think it was fairly clear, based on statements from President Biden  that, on a bilateral basis, he was going to be very accommodating and would like the relationship to be a good one,” said James Kim, who watches Korea-US relations from the Seoul-based think tank the Asan Institute.

Elsewhere in the region, Japan and the US had previously agreed to a provisional one-year extension of an existing agreement on Tokyo’s financial support for the approximately 50,000 US  troops in Japan, according to Kyodo news agency. Under that, Japan should pay $1.86 billion in 2021.

Sticking points

But even if pressing military matters have been finessed, other issues may still present stumbling blocks to fully amicable relations between Seoul and Washington.

Despite its concerns about Trump’s unorthodox behaviors and policies toward allies, Moon, who seeks improved relations with Pyongyang, strongly supported the ex-president’s unprecedented summit diplomacy with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

It is currently unclear whether, and under what circumstances, Biden could meet Kim.

And until the new administration’s policy review is over, it will not be clear whether Washington is willing to be accommodating of Moon’s strong desire for economic engagement across the DMZ, which would require sanction waivers.  

South Korean soldiers patrol along a barbed wire fenced area of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea, in this file photo. Photo: AFP

A further matter is Seoul’s cautious stance toward Beijing.

“Another issue the US cares about on the foreign policy front is it would like South Korea to be more forthcoming on issues related to China,” Kim said.  “It has not been as forthcoming as, for instance, Japan has.”

While both Seoul and Tokyo maintain separate security alliances with Washington, both are economically bound to Beijing, which is both capitals’ leading trade partner. However, Tokyo has spoken up about human rights issues to Beijing and has resisted Chinese territorial moves in the East China Sea. Seoul has been more reticent.