Necessary symbolSouth Korea and the United States kicked off their annual 10-day Ulchi-Freedom Guardian joint military exercise Monday.
The usually low-profile mass-scale land, air and sea exercises have come under an unprecedented spotlight with some in Washington and Beijing, as well as Korean civilian activist groups calling for a suspension or scaling-down of the joint military drills.
China’s Global Times, Beijing’s English mouthpiece, advised Korea to stop the military exercise if it “wants no war on the Korean Peninsula,” predicting that the drill will only further provoke Pyongyang and therefore incite a “radical response.”
A civilian group held a surprise rally at the U.S. embassy in Seoul, demanding that U.S. troops to leave the peninsula. What’s worrisome is that mainstream U.S. media like The New York Times and Washington Post also began to join the chorus.
The South Korea-U.S. alliance was been built on wartime comradeship. The joint military exercise is both the symbol and lynchpin of their bilateral security alliance.
The idea of ceasing the symbolically important military exercise is thus unthinkable. Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, and Air Force General John Hyten, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, flew into South Korea to oversee the exercise and send a clear message to North Korea and others that their unwavering commitment to the regular war game remains firm.
Still, the fact that the exercise has been scaled down from last year’s, with fewer U.S. soldiers joining this year’s drill, raises concerns that there could be a different plan brewing within Washington.
The United States may be making a subtle move to build a reconciliatory mood after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un toned down his verbal attack. But Washington must be consistent in showing a solid military alliance with Seoul.
The joint military exercise, and U.S. troops in South Korea, need not be safeguarded as an absolute. They could be flexibly considered if North Korea dismantles its nuclear and missile weapons program. We need a radical and flexible mindset if we want to prepare for unification.
But for now, North Korea’s threat is too imminent. Talking about stopping joint military exercises and pulling U.S. troops out is highly dangerous. They are our last card against Pyongyang and should be used wisely. Korea, for the time being, must carry out the exercise successfully and demonstrate its power to North Korea.
JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 21, Page 30