Last Friday, 27 January, the U.S.-ROK Combined Forces Command (CFC) announced the dates for two joint and combined military exercises in the ROK. Key Resolve, an annual command post exercise will be held from 27 February to 9 March, and Foal Eagle, a tactical field exercise, will be held from 1 March to 30 April. The DPRK immediately denounced the exercises, which Pyongyang has labeled an “unpardonable grave military provocation to the sovereignty of the DPRK and a wanton challenge to the international community’s desire for peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula”. The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) asserts “Key Resolve is a nuclear war rehearsal for aggression on the DPRK” that is “intolerable while the nation is mourning the loss of Kim Jong-il”. Rodong Sinmun calls the exercises “a test nuclear war to invade the DPRK through a surprise attack”. DPRK media reported several appeals throughout January to cancel the exercises even before the CFC announcement.
U.S.-ROK combined military exercises often have been controversial, particularly during crises or during times of inter-Korean tensions. The U.S.-ROK Team Spirit exercise, which was launched in 1976 to reassure the ROK when it abandoned its nuclear weapons program, was repeatedly cited by Pyongyang as a “rehearsal for nuclear war against the DPRK”. Team Spirit then became a bargaining chip and was cancelled in the mid 1990s as reward for DPRK cooperation in the Agreed Framework. This led some to believe that ROK and U.S.-ROK military exercises exacerbate the security situation on the peninsula, and that the best way to reduce or eliminate DPRK belligerence is to cancel military exercises.
Some on the left in South Korea have suggested that Key Resolve and Foal Eagle should be cancelled as a gesture for beginning a new cooperative relationship in the Kim Jŏng-ŭn era. A reduction in tensions and greater inter-Korean cooperation is desirable, but cancelling the exercises is unlikely to achieve this result for several reasons.
First, despite Pyongyang’s harsh criticism of exercises in the South, the Korean People’s Army (KPA) has continued its winter training exercises. Aircraft sorties reportedly have increased this year, and the North has conducted flight tests of short-range missiles over the last two months. It seems disingenuous to ask others to stand down when ramping up one’s own military training. And on the other hand, it would be irresponsible for the ROK and U.S. to neglect military training requirements without a reduction in the KPA force posture.
Second, the DPRK clearly has stated its intention to adhere to its sŏn’gun [military first] policy line. Sŏn’gun is a slightly modified Leninist world view that emphasises the importance of military power to resist “imperialist aggression”. The DPRK under the leadership of the Korean Workers’ Party has not renounced the use of force to unify Korea. Military weakness is more likely to invite greater military adventurism from the DPRK rather than arms control and nuclear disarmament. The good news is that sŏn’gun has strong “realist” overtones. In other words, power is what matters in sŏn’gun, and the KPA leadership probably has no delusions about the balance of power on the peninsula. The DPRK can be deterred, but deterrence can fail in the case of poor readiness and inadequate training.
Third, militaries have to train if they are to fulfill their tasks when called upon. ROK Army conscripts serve 21 months, and most U.S. military personnel serve for one year in the ROK, although some serve for 2-3 years. This turnover in forces requires annual training, which is scheduled well in advance. The KPA has been notified of the exercises, and CFC has invited the KPA to observe the exercises. Personnel from the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC) will observe the exercises to verify they are in compliance with the Armistice.
So why is the rhetoric out of Pyongyang so shrill? It’s always shrill, but slightly more so this year, possibly because of Seoul’s response to the Ch’ŏnan sinking and Yŏnp’yŏng Island artillery attack in 2010. Those events triggered a reassessment of ROK military readiness and a reorganization of the command and control structure. The ROK has been increasing procurement and deployment of weapons systems to counter the DPRK’s asymmetric threats, and ramping up its military exercises.
Key Resolve and Foal Eagle are not the only ROK exercises these days. In January, ROK forces participated in Cobra Gold, a multi-national exercise in Thailand that included the U.S., Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. The 2012 Cobra Gold exercise included simulated UN peacekeeping operations and humanitarian assistance, which mirrors some of the activities ROK troops would have to perform under ROK contingency plans for the North.
Furthermore, the ROK Air Force dispatched F-15s to Nellis Air Base in Nevada to participate in the Red Flag exercise from 2 January to 3 February. The ROK Air Force has participated in Red Flag before, but this is the first time since 2008. The exercise typically includes training in interdiction, ground attack, air superiority, air defense suppression, airlift, air refueling and reconnaissance. This training provides realistic scenarios for responding to DPRK provocations near the North Limit Line (NLL).
Despite the rhetoric, the likelihood of military conflict during the training period is low. The DPRK will continue its military training through the spring, and Pyongyang should be well behaved in the lead up to the Kim Il-sung centennial celebration in April. However, conventional provocations after April cannot be ruled out. In that case, military training and readiness in the South will be instrumental in dealing with any crises that could arise.
If the KPA is a professional military force, as it proclaims under its sŏn’gun doctrine, it should accept invitations to observe military exercises, just as the PLA, Russian military and others have done at Cobra Gold and elsewhere. The commanders of the KPA, the PLA (or technically, the Chinese People’s Volunteers, who no longer exist), and the United Nations Command all have the responsibility to uphold the Armistice. Transparency, mutual observation of all military exercises in the region, and other confidence-building measures are the appropriate pathways for tension reduction and stability on the Korean peninsula.