South Korea has not yet made a decision regarding the joint military exercises they conduct along with the United States that are scheduled to happen in August. The major concern that delays the response of the officials is a warning that North Korea gave against these exercises. Considering the two countries’ efforts to rebuild their relations and the decision to restore hotlines made by South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, South Korea has to look for a diplomatic solution allowing military drills while maintaining a positive dynamic with North Korea.
Lee Jong-Joo, the spokeswoman of Seoul’s Ministry of Unification, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said that the exercises should not be a “source of military tension in any case.” According to the U.S. State Department spokesperson, Washington “supports inter-Korean dialogue and engagement, and welcomes the recent developments related to inter-Korean communication.” They continued that “diplomacy and dialogue are essential to achieving the complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.”
The move to revive the connection comes after a year of absence of communication between the two countries. The relationship deteriorated in June 2020 when North Korea cut the hotline that connected the two leaders, amidst a failed second summit that was scheduled to be held in February 2019 between Kim Jong Un and then U.S. President Donald Trump. The historical events of the reopening of the hotlines are, as North Korea’s state news agency, KCNA, stated, “a big stride in recovering mutual trust and promoting reconciliation.” However, even the thaw in the communication with North Korea does not guarantee a return to the nuclear program negotiations that the country successfully abandoned.
The development of the U.S.-South Korea military drills has not been very active in the past years due to the plans to begin the dialogue between the U.S. and North Korea. The move towards lifting the sanctions was supposed to persuade Kim Jong Un to dismantle the North Korean nuclear program. This ambitious plan has not shown any progress since the 1950s that marked the start of the conflict between the Koreas. Hence, there is no surprise that the negotiations did not happen in 2019 and only increased the tension between the two countries.
South Korea has been playing a middle power role and recently emerged as a regional leader. Slowly but consistently, they have proved to be successful in regulating their relationship with North Korea despite the regular communication loss. The position that South Korea is holding is difficult, as the military drills ensure a positive relationship with the U.S. as a global hegemonic power. But their proximity to North Korea pushes the country to search for more diplomatic tricks to keep the communication going.
While the thaw in the relationship creates a new opportunity for bettering understanding on both sides, the disadvantage for South Korea is rooted in the long history of the frozen conflict that has not shown any improvement for more than 50 years. However, at a time when the conflict has the potential to show significant improvement, South Korea should decide whether it is going to seize this opportunity which may compromise their relationship with the U.S.
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