Should we end military exercises?The annual U.S.-Korea military exercise, Ulchi Freedom Guardian (UFG), began earlier this month in South Korea for a period of just under two weeks. UFG is a computerized command-and-control exercise focused on simulating how the countries would defend against a North Korean invasion, and normally involves about 50,000 South Korean troops and 30,000 U.S. soldiers, in addition to participation from Australia, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, France, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. UFG, together with the Key Resolve/Foal Eagle military exercise in the spring, are the largest combined and joint defensive training exercises in South Korea each year.
These exercises also serve as a platform for North Korean charges of U.S. and South Korean aggression and elicit fiery rhetoric from Pyongyang, if not belligerent actions. Already the North threatened to attack the United States homeland if the exercises are not stopped. It also threatened to carry out “indiscriminate” attacks on the South.
The North Korean reaction to these exercises have caused some to label this annual exercise, which is necessary to maintain readiness and deterrence, as “provocative” and spoilers for diplomatic progress. Such critics never acknowledge that even as the North criticizes the alliance’s exercises as provocative, Pyongyang carries out its own exercise cycle, which it never deems as provocative to Washington and Seoul.
Nevertheless, some experts have called for the U.S. to consider using the exercises as a bargaining chip in diplomacy - for example, offering to cancel or delay them in order to avoid upsetting the North and in order to keep the diplomatic wheels greased.
The CSIS Korea Chair conducted a longitudinal study in March to see whether U.S.-Korea military exercises are truly “provocative” in the sense that they always lead to negative North Korean responses, worsening relationships and increased tension on the Korean Peninsula. The scope of the study was 10 years of U.S.-Korea military exercises (2005-14), and we looked specifically at the Key Resolve/Foal Eagle exercises, rather than UFG. Here is what we found:
First, the military exercises have no significant impact on the overall U.S.-North Korea diplomatic relationship. They are not game-changers. The past 10 years of exercises demonstrated a rough correlation between the status of bilateral relations prior to the exercises and the status of relations after the exercises. That is, if U.S.-North Korea relations were coded positively prior to the exercises, they remained positive after the exercises, even if rhetoric from the KCNA might give a different impression. On the other hand, if the relationship was coded negatively prior to the exercises, the exercises tended to reinforce the negative relations in terms of rhetoric and possible provocations.
Second, Pyongyang can compartmentalize its reactions to the exercises. What this means is that the regime can insulate any positive gains in inter-Korean relations from its belligerent rhetoric against the U.S. during the military exercise period. In 2005 and 2006, for example, relations between Seoul (under a progressive government) and Pyongyang remained good despite North Korean sabre-rattling against the military exercises.
Third, the duration of the exercises has some bearing on Pyongyang’s behavior. As the duration of exercises has grown longer - beginning in 2009 when it first became multi-week - the window of opportunity for kinetic North Korean responses has also widened in periods that show correlation between negative pre- and post-exercise diplomatic relations. Small-scale provocations during and after the exercise period became more common after 2009.
Fourth, as difficult as it is to listen to the litany of meaningless charges, accusations and name-calling, Pyongyang’s official rhetoric remains a good indicator of possible small-scale provocative actions during the military exercise period. Intelligence experts tasked with this duty in Washington and Seoul would do well to listen carefully to Pyongyang’s rhetoric in the coming days for potential actions.
So the answer is no. The U.S. and South Korea should not give up military exercises. The annual exercises are the core of alliance readiness and deterrence on the peninsula. The exercises do not inhibit the diplomats from doing their job. And the times when Pyongyang does act out, it is not directly due to the exercises but reflective of a state of relations prior to the commencement of the training.
*The author is a professor at Georgetown University and senior adviser at CSIS in Washington, D.C.
by Victor Cha