Korean and US troops exercise in South Korea in days past. Today's war games are computer-generated, not boots-on-ground. Photo: AFP

SEOUL – Spring has arrived in Korea, meaning clear skies, seasonal blossoms, cool breezes – and military tensions.

South Korea and the United States kicked off nine-day military drills on Monday, one day after North Korea conducted its 13th missile test this year. Meanwhile, joint Japanese-US naval drills have sparked a Russian response in the Sea of Japan.

These events are happening in the closing days of the Moon Jae-in administration, which exits office on May 9. The leftist Moon has been an ever-hopeful engager of North Korea, and had promised Beijing that Seoul would never enter a military alliance with Tokyo.

His successor as South Korean president, the rightist Yoon Suk-yeol, has a different outlook. He has displayed far less interest in engaging North Korea, and – in a highly unusual initiative for a South Korean politician – has vowed to upgrade relations with Japan.

Korean and regional media are rife with rumors that Yoon is interested in joining the US-led, China-facing Quad alliance. Other rumors and voices are suggesting that Japan should be welcomed into the US-led “Five Eyes,” the Anglosphere intelligence-sharing grouping.

The transition from Moon to Yoon may shift the dynamics of Northeast Asia, a region that is, along with Western Europe and North America, one of three pillars of the global economy. Though peace currently prevails, the region is a virtual tinderbox, brimming with multiple animosities based on ideological, territorial and historical rivalries.

That list includes China versus the US, China versus Taiwan, China versus Japan, North Korea versus Japan, South Korea and the US, Japan versus South Korea, Russia versus Japan, and Russia versus the US.

Moreover, regional powers are engaged in a very expensive arms race. The list of the top 10 biggest spenders on military forces/arms in the world in 2020 according to Swedish military think-tank SIPRI include five regional players: No 1 spender the United States, No 2 China, No 4 Russia, No 9 Japan and No 10 South Korea.

Chinese People’s Liberation Army soldiers march during a military parade. Beiing’s expanding military represents a wider regional arms race. Photo: AFP / Stephen Shaver

War games on

Since then-US president Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un convened a historic summit in Singapore in 2018, the annual South Korea-US spring drills have been put on the back burner.

While Trump criticized the drills on grounds of cost, the aim of downsizing and de-prioritizing the exercises, in the words of a US general, was “to give diplomacy room to work.” That aim was backed to the hilt by the engagement-centric Moon administration.

Subsequently – and even after Trump walked out of a 2019 summit with Kim in Hanoi – the drills were impacted further amid the Covid-19 crisis, when gatherings were taboo.

The downgrading of joint drills generated some grumbling in US military and conservative circles, who complained that joint readiness was being eroded.

And some South Koreans fretted that the drills are necessary to demonstrate domestic capabilities to the United States – a demonstration necessary before Washington is willing to transfer wartime operational command of local forces to Seoul’s control, the long-planned “OPCON Transfer.”

Now, at a time when North Korea is ramping up its missile-testing regimen to an unusual tempo, the drills are back on. But they are low-key.

The exercises no longer use their customary codename, “Key Resolve” (used since 1997). As of 2019, they have simply been called CCPT (combined command post training).

The 28,000-strong US Forces Korea, or USFK, did not put out any related press release on Monday. That left it up to South Korean media, quoting Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, to announce their start.

As is customary, the first joint drills of the year do not involve boots hitting ground: They are command-post exercises, which means South Korean and US troops huddling in bunkers, fighting virtual battles via computer stimulations.

Traditionally, they are the first component of a regular series of annual South Korea-US drills.

In recent years, “Key Resolve” has been a command-post exercise held in the spring – the equivalent of today’s CCPT. “Foal Eagle” is a field drill that takes place after Key Resolve in spring, often with live-fire drills. “Ulchi Freedom Guardian” is another command-post drill held in the summer, often with visiting US personnel or assets.

The fate of the latter drills, this year, is uncertain.

North Korea considers these exercises preparation for an invasion. Seoul and Washington deny this, saying they are defensive in nature.

However, informed persons tell Asia Times that the drills often include a counterattack component – suggesting that North Korean criticisms are not entirely unfounded.

Meanwhile, Washington is maneuvering major assets in the region: A US aircraft-carrier strike group has been traversing Northeast Asian waters.

Goodbye Moon, hello Yoon

With Yoon taking power on May 10, all signals are that the current government’s outreach to North Korea will be reeled in.

“The Moon administration made efforts to improve inter-Korean ties in its own way, but North Korea did not respond to them properly,” Park Jin, Yoon’s foreign minister-designate, said in Seoul on Monday. “We cannot stop North Korea from repeating military provocations only with a conciliatory stance and I think it is time to practically change our peacemaking policy toward North Korea.”

The president-elect made a point of visiting the main US base in South Korea on April 7. US commander-in-chief General Paul J LaCamera hosted Yoon and, according to USFK, provided an “ironclad commitment to strengthening the US-ROK alliance and providing a strong robust combined defense posture.”

Yoon has also made clear that he wants to build bridges to Tokyo, raising the specter of a potential trilateral alliance – a development Washington has long sought.

For decades, Seoul and Tokyo have been bitterly divided over historical issues. Under Moon, those disputes crossed firewalls into the diplomatic and even economic spaces.

The retirement of the anti-Japanese Moon, following the 2020 resignation of nationalist Shinzo Abe from Tokyo’s premiership, offers the chance for a Japan-South Korea reset.

While both capitals have alliances with Washington, there is no trilateral relationship, beyond a shaky intelligence-sharing agreement. But if Yoon wants to advance matters, he could face domestic political barriers.

“Moon has rejected trilateral training and I don’t know if the Yoon government will do that, as civil society’s response will be very harsh,” said Moon Chung-in, an academic and high-profile adviser to the Moon Jae-in (no relation) administration. “That could give Japan a pretext for a revision of their pacifist constitution, so that they no longer have a self-defense force, they become a regular force.”

Amid Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, there have been rumbles in the Sea of Japan.

On April 7, Russian submarines test-fired two cruise missiles in what has been widely seen as a counter to joint Japan-US naval drills, involving the US aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln.

President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol has very different ideas about regional military issues than his predecessor. Photo: Tasnim News Agency

Don’t forget Kim

North Korea is also simmering, as Kim works to his own timetable to upgrade his armory. On Sunday – the day prior to the South Korean-US drills – the nation fired two projectiles into the Sea of Japan, in what was the the 13th missile test this year.

State media said that the weapons, which were tested under the personal supervision of Kim, are “of great significance in drastically improving the firepower of the frontline long-range artillery units and enhancing the efficiency in the operation of tactical nukes.”

Tactical nuclear weapons, along with hypersonic missiles, submarine-launched missiles and a super-large nuclear weapon were all part of the smorgasbord of new arms that the state announced it would develop during a 2021 Party Congress.

And last month, it tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) – overturning a self-applied moratorium that had held since 2018. There are now concerns that Kim will resume nuclear tests.

To the surprise of some, North Korea did not use its April 10 holiday – which marks the birthday of state founder Kim Il Sung – to conduct a military parade, instead holding civilian rallies.  

But there is little question that the country is determined to continue developing weapons.

“More than marking North Korean holidays, challenging South Korea’s incoming president, or taking advantage of the war in Ukraine, the reason the Kim regime further develops missiles and nuclear weapons is to win what it perceives as an arms race on the Korean Peninsula,” Leif-Eric Easley, who teaches international studies at Seoul’s Ewha Womans University, said in an e-mail briefing to reporters.

“South Korea’s military is backed by a much larger and technologically sophisticated economy, as well as a superpower ally.” 

Since last year, after a summit between US President Joe Biden and Moon lifted American restrictions on South Korean missile innovation, Seoul has been testing space launch vehicles, ballistic missiles and submarine- launched ballistic missiles.

Here come the headwinds

One man who has played an advisory role to all the South Korean presidents who have sought to engaged North Korea is appalled at the way developments are shaping up.

“There was nothing wrong with President Moon’s peace initiative but the US government screwed it up – the Hanoi summit and the [recent attempt to sign an] end-the-Korean-War declaration,” Moon Chung-in told Asia Times. “Once they gained the trust of North Korea they should have pushed it, but they screwed it up, and that gave ammunition to the hardliners in Pyongyang.”

He was also critical about the stated policy of the Yoon administration to pressure the regime while engaging in dialog.

“This idea of pressure and dialogue is a formula that does not work,” said Moon, who has been a part of all South Korean presidential delegations to the North. “North Korea sees pressure as hostile intent, and will not talk.”

The ramifications of the upcoming power shift in Seoul could ripple beyond the peninsula.

“For China, expanded US military exercises in Asia, improved South Korean missiles, and increased Seoul-Tokyo defense cooperation would be unwelcome developments,” Easley said. “The incoming Yoon administration is likely to pursue all three if Beijing fails to restrain Pyongyang from further provocations.”

That does not appear to be a priority for Beijing policymakers.

“Beijing is hardly pressuring Pyongyang on denuclearization or returning to diplomacy,” he said. “China’s leaders are more focused on rivalry with Washington and willing to support international norm-violators in Russia and North Korea.” 

Kim Jong Un may be overshadowed by the war in Ukraine, but is never too far from the headlines. Photo: AFP