On Sunday 17 November, the United States and South Korea announced that they would be postponing upcoming joint military drills. Representatives from the two nations hope that doing so will bolster peace efforts in the region. However, the move has already been criticized, with many commentators concerned that the Trump Administration is being too soft on North Korea, by appeasing the rogue state and its leadership rather than challenging it.
The postponement of joint military exercises was announced at the opening of a meeting of regional defence chiefs in Bangkok, Thailand. The postponed military drills, known as the Combined Flying Training Event, would have been a simulation of aerial combat utilizing warplanes from the United States and South Korea. While this year’s exercises had already been reduced in size compared to previous years, Reuters reports that a senior North Korean diplomat said earlier this month that the aerial drill was “throwing cold water” over talks between the United States and North Korea. Pyongyang has opposed the joint military exercises for many years, deeming them to be practice for an eventual invasion of the reclusive nation. The postponement of this year’s exercise seems designed to appease the leadership, a claim that American Defence Secretary Mark Esper denied: “I don’t see this as a concession. I see this as a good faith effort… to enable peace.” While Esper used his time speaking to encourage North Korea to return to the negotiation table, not all present at the meeting share his optimism. Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono took great issue with the announcement, saying “No one could be optimistic about North Korea. North Korea has repeatedly launched more than 20 missiles this year, including new types of ballistic missiles, as well as a submarine-launched ballistic missile.”
Negotiations between North Korea and the United States have been ongoing since the election of Donald Trump in 2016. While some believe that the Trump administration’s approach has led to a thaw in the relationship between the nations, North Korea has once again become reluctant to engage. Pyongyang claims that recent American ‘hostile policy’ prevents meaningful discussion from occurring. Trump’s approach is different to that of previous presidents; rather than challenging and punishing North Korea, Trump has chosen to appease the reclusive nation in the hopes that this will make them more willing to negotiate. The American president has called military exercises on the Korean peninsula “very provocative” and expensive, as well as expressing his own admiration of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un following a meeting in 2017. These efforts have so far been for naught. In fact, North Korean missile tests have increased in frequency over the past year, indicating that the nation is making major progress in its nuclear program. The most recent act of American appeasement will likely see North Korea grow bolder with its demands.
Peace between North and South Korea, as well as the reduction or termination of North Korea’s nuclear program, are fantastic goals. However, the current approach is not working. Under the Trump Administration, North Korea has become more belligerent and made great strides in its own military potential, and has managed to escape punishment for its actions. Ongoing American appeasement will only see this continue unabated. Without firm American support, regional powers such as South Korea or Japan may become targets for the North Korean regime’s aggression. It is important that the United States return to a policy of containment with regard to North Korea, rather than continuing down its current path. Peace, while the best outcome, may not prove a benefit if the region is destabilized in the progress.
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