A dangerous gambitPresident Moon Jae-in’s proposal for a suspension of joint Korea-U.S. military exercises next year is a double-edged sword that could hurt South Korea. In an interview on Tuesday with NBC, Moon said he had proposed to the United States to put off annual drills to help ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Though the United States has not replied to the offer, joint drills will likely be postponed given the current atmosphere.
We understand Moon’s desire for a successful Olympics as leaders of China and Japan have not answered his requests to attend the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. If North Korea sends its athletes to the games, Moon will be more than happy. No matter how belligerent it can be, North Korea will certainly not engage in provocations when its athletes compete in the games. Moreover, the United Nations’ resolution in November to stop all hostilities from seven days before the Olympics to seven days after the games certainly encouraged Moon to take such a step.
If North Korea participates in the games as Moon wishes, it could provide momentum for an inter-Korean dialogue, which may lead to a turning point to break the deadlock over North Korea’s nuclear development. But we are concerned about misconceptions behind the idea of delaying the drills. The Moon administration has based the proposal on the thinking that a joint Korea-U.S. drill during the Olympic period could hamper a successful staging of the Games. But that’s a very dangerous idea. The Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises are defensive — not offensive — drills. Next February and March, when the Olympics and Paralympics are held, North Korea is expected to complete ICBMs with nuclear warheads. If defensive drills are postponed under such circumstances, it could endanger the Games.
Another problem with the proposal is that it is similar to China’s argument for a simultaneous suspension of the North’s nuclear provocations and the joint drills. If Seoul pushes ahead with the proposal, it could be read as cozying up to China, which could damage Washington’s trust of Seoul.
Whether North Korea would accept Moon’s proposal also is not clear. If Kim Jong-un rejects it and provokes again before the games, the Moon administration will become a laughingstock. In the worst case, the peninsula could head into a greater crisis. The die has been cast. President Moon must make multifaceted efforts if he does not want his proposal to backfire. He must not forget that tightening economic sanctions on North Korea will encourage it to come to the Olympics.
JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 21, Page 34