The United States and South Korea proceeded with planned joint military exercises early last week, despite North Korea’s characterization of the exercises as provocative and threatening. North Korea claims that the drills jeopardize ongoing nuclear disarmament negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang. The exercises are aimed to assess Seoul’s military capability to assume wartime operational control of its troops from the US. The current US-South Korea military treaty stipulates that in war, an American general will assume command of their combined forces. South Korea has long sought to reverse this arrangement. During the drills, F-35A stealth fighters and high-altitude reconnaissance drones were deployed, as well as a port call by the Oklahoma, an American nuclear submarine. Ju Yong-chol, a North Korean diplomat, called the actions “hostile acts” and accused the US of “inciting military tensions.” South Korean defense minister, Jeong Kyeong-doo, told reporters that the exercise ensured South Korea was “clearly maintaining its readiness posture against any military action by North Korea.”
In defense of North Korea’s nuclear program, Ju told the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, “We are also compelled to develop, test, and deploy the powerful physical means essential for our national defense.” North Korea launched two short-range ballistic missiles Tuesday morning, just hours before Ju’s statement. It has conducted three similar military tests in the last several weeks, many of which appear to violate UN resolutions restricting the country from developing or deploying ballistic missiles, according to The New York Times. North Korea’s dictatorial leader, Kim Jong-un, defended the Tuesday missile test, telling the Korean Central News Agency that it “would be an occasion to send an adequate warning to the joint military drill now underway by the US and South Korean authorities.” North Korea has also warned it may resume its currently suspended nuclear and long-range missile tests.
North Korea has long labeled US-South Korea military exercises as rehearsals for invasion. US President Donald Trump has met with Kim to attempt nuclear negotiations, but the military exercises seem to have thwarted North Korea’s confidence in the US; Ju told reporters that the exercises, an “open denial and flagrant violation” of the US-North Korea agreements, were “dramatically reducing our desire” for a deal. Robert Wood, US ambassador to the Geneva conference, told reporters that Washington was still committed to negotiations and the military exercises were not intended to threaten North Korea. Even so, there are no current plans for the US to curtail future military exercises with South Korea, according to the American defense secretary.
Even so, experts say the combination of North Korean military activities and US-South Korea military exercises could delay negotiations until later this year. The deferral of substantial diplomacy between the US and North Korea is highly risky, particularly if the respective leaders continue to provoke one another. While international pressures, such as those that may arise out of gatherings such as the Conference on Disarmament, are evidence of positive changes, they may need to intensify to prevent future upheaval. Should Pyongyang signal increasing hostility, the US and South Korea might do well to arrange diplomatic talks both to quell increased tension and attempt to progress in the nuclear negotiations. For the time being, the long-time US-South Korean alliance – and military exercises to support Seoul’s strength in wartime conditions – should persist.