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

SEOUL – It has been confirmed that South Korean and US forces will conduct military drills in South Korea in mid-August, drawing a predictably harsh response from the leadership in Pyongyang, and presenting a challenge for pro-engagers in South Korea.

The drills “are the most vivid expression of the US hostile policy towards [North Korea], designed to stifle our state by force, and an unwelcoming act of self-destruction for which a dear price should be paid as they threaten the safety of our people and further imperil the situation on the Korean Peninsula,” Kim Yo Jong, the high-profile sister of national leader Kim Jong Un said in a statement carried by state media on Tuesday morning.

Questions had been raised in South Korea over whether combined South Korean-US military drills should proceed this summer, but Yonhap News, a part state-owned news agency, reported on Monday that they would.  The story, citing anonymous sources, said the drills would be held in a scaled-back format due to Covid-19 from August 16-26.

A separate Yonhap report said a four-day, crisis-management exercise would precede the drills.

Further confirmation came on Tuesday.

Last week, Asia Times had heard from a source close to US Forces Korea That US personnel and assets have been moved to the peninsula in preparation for the exercises. That suggested a strong US will to proceed with the drills.

The drills are “tabletop drills” – i.e. computer simulations held in sealed command posts – rather than live-fire exercises with troops and kinetic equipment.

There has been a debate underway in the South as to whether it is sound policy to conduct the drills this summer.

Asia Times understands that there is a disconnect within the South Korean government over the drills, with doves in the Ministry of Unification opposed and hawks in the Ministry of National Defense in favor.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in is torn in two directions.

President Moon Jae-in is torn between hawks and doves in his government. Photo: Handout.

On the one hand, Moon, a strong proponent of engagement with North Korea, is nearing the end of his constitutionally mandated single term in office. A presidential election is set for next March. He may be seeking to lay the groundwork of improved relations, either as a personal legacy or as pathway his successor will be compelled to follow.

On the other, Moon also wants the wartime operational control of South Korean forces to move from the US to South Korea – “OPCON Transfer” – to be accelerated. Combined drills are stress-test milestones in that process.

North Korea rumbles

North Korea customarily considers alliance exercises on and around the peninsula practice for an invasion, and a halting of the combined drills is a policy priority.

Following the first summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un in 2018, drills were stopped as a confidence-building measure. Subsequently, after it became clear that their engagement had not led to a breakthrough, Covid-19 put further dampeners on exercises.

Now, with the Joe Biden administration entering its first summer in office; with vaccinations making an impression on Covid-19; and with North Korea being unresponsive to South Korean and US requests for dialogue; there is a call for the resumption of drills.

Two factors argue for that resumption. First is that the two militaries need to maintain joint inter-operational readiness – a problem that Pyongyang, fielding a single, rather than an allied force, does not face. Second is that the drills pressure a recalcitrant Pyongyang.

Current indications are that Pyongyang is constrained on multiple fronts. It is maintaining a watertight border closure against Covid, its economy is heavily impacted by sanctions, and it is believed to be facing serious – even potentially catastrophic – food shortages.

Yet, in Pyongyang’s corridors of power, there remains sufficient policy bandwidth for the regime to signal its position that it wants the drills red-lighted.

Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un. Photo: AFP / Jorge Silva / POOL

Pyongyang dangled the carrot of upgraded relations with Seoul on July 27, when it allowed the reconnection of cross-DMZ hotlines. But in short order, a stick was brandished on August 1, via a statement from Kim Yo Jong

Her current outward-facing role in the regime is as an advocate of hardline stances.

“For some days I have been hearing an unpleasant story that joint military exercises between the South Korean army and the US forces could go ahead as scheduled,” Kim said in a statement carried by the state-run Korean Central News Agency on Monday.

“I view this as an undesirable prelude which seriously undermines the will of the top leaders of the North and the South wishing to see a step taken toward restoring mutual trust and which further beclouds the way ahead of the North-South relations.” 

In her subsequent statement on Tuesday, Kim was in full flow.

North Korea will increase “the deterrent of absolute capacity to cope with the ever-growing military threats from the US,” she said, “powerful preemptive strike for rapidly countering any military actions against us.”

She also slammed Seoul.

“Availing myself of this opportunity, I would like to express my deep regret at the perfidious behavior of the South Korean authorities,” she said.

Even so, according to South Korean TV news reports this morning, the recently reconnected cross-border hotlines continued normal operations.

Challenges and sensitivities

Seoul’s enthusiasm for engagement grants Pyongyang leverage. While there was considerable hoopla surrounding the reconnection of the cross-border telephone and fax links, some are cynical about its import; after all, their disconnection is a simple matter.

“They just wanted to give us a carrot,” said Choi Jin-wook, who heads the think tank the Center for Strategic and Cultural Studies. “If we don’t want anything from North Korea, this would not be important, but this government is eager to engage.”

The halting of joint drills, is “the long-term goal [North Korea] wants to achieve,” added Choi.

A demonstration firing of a tactical guided weapon in March 2020 at an undisclosed location in North Korea. Photo: AFP/ KCNA VIA KNS

Still, even military experts in the South concede that there is some justice to the North’s point of view that the exercises involve invasion preparations.

“What we do [in the drills] is we absorb the attack and then we counterattack – and the counter-attack portion can be taken that way,” admitted Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean general who commanded the Special Warfare Command.

But he clarified, “It is a counter attack – not a premeditated attack.”

He also suggested that this is known in North Korea. However, the drills provide a convenient bogeyman for the regime to frighten its own people.

“I think Pyongyang does this just to keep their own people under the illusion that the South Koreans and Americans are trying to attack them, to create a crisis,” Chun said.

Due to border closures, halts to trade, food shortages and likely Covid challenges, North Korea is facing a multi-faceted internal crisis. Given this, an external crisis could feasibly be useful for the Pyongyang elite to refocus their population’s attention away from domestic challenges.

In the past, drills in the spring and summer have generated robust responses from the North, sending jitters across the region as – in a phrase beloved of reporters – “tensions rise.”

Pyongyang can choose from a spectrum: maintaining a dignified silence; thundering against the alliance in public forums and state media; holding mass rallies; or testing-firing weapons of its own, notably missiles.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated with breaking developments on Tuesday, August 10.