[Column] 70 years of armistice and joint S. Korea-US drills

Posted on : 2023-03-20 16:54 KST Modified on : 2023-03-20 16:54 KST
With rising tensions comes the possibility of an accidental conflict — not with conventional armaments, but with a de facto nuclear arsenal
The ROK Army’s 3rd Engineer Brigade and US 2nd Infantry Division carry out joint river-crossing exercises in Yeoncheon County, Gyeonggi Province, between March 6 and March 17. (courtesy of the ROK Army)
The ROK Army’s 3rd Engineer Brigade and US 2nd Infantry Division carry out joint river-crossing exercises in Yeoncheon County, Gyeonggi Province, between March 6 and March 17. (courtesy of the ROK Army)

By Kim Yeon-chul, former minister of unification and current professor at Inje University

Spring has sprung for the year, which will mark the 70th anniversary of the armistice on the Korean Peninsula. Yet this year’s spring doesn’t feel quite like spring should. Though joint South Korea-US military drills have jeopardized the situation on the Korean Peninsula each spring and fall, this year the outlook is particularly unsettling.

The coalescence of the Yoon administration’s ideology, the US Forces Korea (USFK) need for practical training, and the US need to reshuffle the military order to target China has resulted in joint exercises unprecedented in scale and intensity. North Korea has also used the exercises as an opportunity to upgrade its strategic weapons, increasing tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

Historically, the scale of the springtime South Korea-US military exercises and North Korea’s responses has shaped the course of the year on the Korean Peninsula. Since the Korean War, the annual exercises have been suspended only twice. Both times, the suspensions changed the atmosphere on the Korean Peninsula and led to a “spring of peace.”

In late 1991, during the Roh Tae-woo administration, South Korea and the United States decided to suspend the Team Spirit exercises as the globe moved out of the Cold War era. The two Koreas subsequently inked the Inter-Korean Basic Agreement and adopted the Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

The spring of peace came in 2018 and was made possible by the suspension of joint exercises in 2017 under the pretext of an “Olympic truce.” North Korea’s change in attitude, the creation of an inviting environment for the successful hosting of the Pyeongchang Olympics, and US President Donald Trump’s negative view of military exercises combined to enable the first suspension of the drills in 26 years. The suspension led to a spring of peace, three inter-Korean summits, and the historic North Korea-US summit.

In contrast, the resumption of the exercises has worsened the situation on the peninsula. In the fall of 1992, US Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney announced that Team Spirit exercises would be held in 1993. Donald Gregg, the US ambassador to South Korea at the time, called that decision “the single biggest mistake made by the United States during my time as ambassador” in his memoirs. North Korea immediately declared a “quasi-war regime” and withdrew from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in March 1993. That marked the beginning of the North Korean nuclear problem.

The same could be said of the resumption of the South Korea-US joint drills in August 2019. Then-national security advisor John Bolton convinced Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — and then Trump himself — that it was necessary to resume the drills. Trump agreed at the time, seeing it as an opportunity to raise defense spending, but later, after North Korea protested and the situation in the Korean Peninsula soured, he said in a White House meeting that he regretted going ahead with the drills.

After the breakdown of the February 2019 Hanoi summit, any hopes of salvaging the situation were extinguished. North Korea sprinted in the direction of nuclear arms, and inter-Korean relations entered a phase of irreversible damage.

A military must train. But one needs to carefully consider the impact that the scale and intensity of the exercises will have on the Korean Peninsula. It is worth remembering that the first joint exercise between South Korea and the US was the Focus Lens drills in 1954. The purpose of joint exercises is to familiarize the South Korean and US forces with wartime operational plans, so it is normal for them to conduct command post exercises using computerized wargames.

It is also worth noting that joint exercises between the two countries are held throughout the year in various fields. It is necessary to carefully weigh the cost of exacerbating the situation on the peninsula versus the effectiveness of military training of large-scale outdoor maneuver exercises during joint drills.

The current joint exercises between South Korea and the US are different. The scale has changed, and the proportion of counterattack drills has increased, and a variety of strategic weapons are involved, in addition to large-scale outdoor maneuvers. During the exercises, the two countries also test the specifics of an extended deterrence that could respond to a North Korean nuclear weapon. With rising tensions comes the possibility of an accidental conflict — not with conventional armaments, but with a de facto nuclear arsenal.

Of course, the impact of these exercises is not limited to the Korean Peninsula. It will lead to military cooperation between South Korea, the US, and Japan to contain China, trigger counter-military exercises by North Korea, China, and Russia, and gradually nudge Northeast Asia into military blocs. The Korean Peninsula is a geopolitical buffer state and has had its share of tragic history whenever maritime and continental powers clash.

Once again, the Korean Peninsula is turning into a battleground. The reason the US rushed to resolve the historical issues between Korea and Japan is to reshape the military order in Northeast Asia with an organic linkage between the US Forces Korea and the US Forces Japan. The purpose of the South Korea-US alliance has changed, and the Korean Peninsula is at a crossroads of historical transition.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the armistice. In the past 70 years of ceasefire, which is nothing but a “temporary cessation of war,” there have been many crises that could have led to war. However, each time, someone — whether it was South Korea, North Korea, or the US —exercised restraint. In the spring of unrest on the Korean Peninsula, one can only hope that anyone will learn from the past 70 years.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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