Joint South Korean, American Military Exercises Prompt North Korean Hostilities

The Republic of Korea (R.O.K.) armed forces and the United States military began full-scale joint military exercises and drills on Monday after a week of preliminary drills and simulations, despite clear dissent from leaders in North Korea’s government and armed forces. The military exercises, known as Crisis Management Staff Training, are held every year between the U.S. and South Korean militaries to test conflict readiness and the efficacy of training schedules. The Yonhap agency, a major South Korean news outlet, reported that these full-military training sessions are scheduled to take place between August 16th and August 26th.

At the time of these drills’ preliminary stages, South Korea’s defense ministry said that specifics of the full-scale exercises, including scale, duration, and overall drill formation, had not yet been determined. While the U.S. and R.O.K. have regularly held these military exercises, North Korea has long objected, calling the exercises “a rehearsal for war,” Reuters says. According to unidentified military sources obtained by Yonhap, the drills are likely to consist mostly of “computerized simulations with no live field training involving U.S-based troops.” However, tensions with North Korea remain high.

Hotlines between the two Koreas, which North Korea originally severed in 2020 following an unsuccessful summit with former U.S. President Donald Trump, were restored in late July following a rekindling of written contact between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un. Korean media touted the re-establishment of the hotline as a “big stride in recovering mutual trust and promoting reconciliation.” The hotline was also applauded by United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres as a step towards “verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

However, in early August, Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, released a statement asserting that carrying out the joint military drills as planned would “significantly damage the resolve of the two Koreas to rebuild relations,” according to state media KCNA. On August 11th, days after the beginning of preliminary drills, a senior North Korean official denounced South Korea’s joint military drills with the U.S. and warned that their southern neighbor “must be made to clearly understand how dearly they have to pay for answering our good faith with hostile acts after letting go the opportunity for improved inter-Korean relations,” CNN says. These hostile comments came hours after Pyongyang ended hotline communications with Seoul.

While North Korea has made it clear that it views the R.O.K.’s actions as a threat to diplomatic relations on the Korean Peninsula, Ned Price, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, has maintained that the military drills are “purely defensive in nature[…]The United States harbors no hostile intent toward North Korea but remains committed to the security of South Korea.”

Given the importance of re-establishing hotlines between the two Koreas, the tension these military exercises have caused should be given legitimate diplomatic attention by the international community. It is in the national security interest of the Korean Peninsula, as well as the United States, to commit to restoring relations between North and South Korea, two countries that remain at war after the 1950-1953 conflict. North Korea must agree to plan a summit with its southern neighbor and demonstrate an openness to the efforts of South Korea and other international actors, including the U.S., to work towards negotiations and eventual denuclearization.