The stability of the Korean Peninsula was questioned this week as the United States government made conflicting statements on the future of joint military training exercises in the area. On Tuesday, August 28th, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told Pentagon reporters, “We have no plans at this time to suspend any more exercises [in the Korean peninsula].” Mattis added that the Defense Department has still has plans for major annual drills scheduled for next year, which would be decided in cooperation with the U.S. State Department.
However, this was later contradicted with Trump’s statement the following day, where he tweeted, “There is no reason at this time to be spending large amounts of money on joint U.S.-South Korea war games. …. Besides [sic] the president can instantly start the joint exercises again with South Korea and Japan, if he chooses.”
According to The New York Times, the U.S. engaged in annual joint combined field training exercises with the South Korean military for the past six decades as a means of celebrating the alliance between the two nations and in preparation for an attack by the North Korean government. These exercises were thought to have been suspended after the Singapore summit between the U.S. and North Korea in June, where Trump agreed to suspend military exercises in return for denuclearization.
While The New York Times reports that the suspension of military exercises was necessary to reduce tensions between the two nations and bring each other to negotiations, it had largely taken U.S. military officials by surprise. Furthermore, though North Korea had agreed to abandon its nuclear weapons capacities following the summit, a UN report published this month has revealed North Korea has continued to develop its nuclear program.
These exercises are expensive endeavours for both countries – South Korean news media have estimated these joint military exercises at $72 million, with a July defence department assessment determining the largest of suspended exercises costs $14 million. But even with their massive costs, many Koreans find it a necessary exercise for national security; the National Assembly Research Service in Korea has found in a survey that more than 53 percent of the respondents felt these joint exercises should continue.
Furthermore, experienced staff are being reassigned to different parts of the military. According to Kim Min-Seok, a former defense ministry spokesman, 90% of south Korean-United States forces command responsible for handling joint military drills would be replaced in two years due to routine rotations. This would mean that if joint military exercises do not continue, it would leave the new members inexperienced in an event of a North Korean attack.
There is a possibility that this uncertainty may have just been a linguistical issue; NPR reporter Tom Bowman explained in his article that the inconsistent use of terminology brings into question whether Trump is using the term “war games” to refer to the “exercises” Jim Mattis is planning or whether it is about the cancellations from the Singapore summit. He explains further that the Pentagon has multiple exercises scheduled with the Korean military in various sizes and scopes, with some involving warplanes and air combat while others based around civilian evacuation.
The inability to be consistent with national policy, especially when it encompasses military action, is perhaps more dangerous than creating a fictional threat to national security. While the latter has been used
Furthermore, while military training exercises are a show of force, they force nations to invest in the growth of each other (albeit for militaristic strategic interests). While the motivation and homogenization of nations’ militaries is questionable, as it becomes far too easy for certain nations like the U.S. to influence other nations with the threat of action, the interdependence of the nations involved increases the cost of warfare, forcing diplomatic solutions to be sought.
With national policies, the importance of clear communication cannot be understated. These mixed messages does not do justice to the lives shaped by the possibility of such consequential actions.
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