Scale down the drillsSpring is the cruelest season for inter-Korean relations. Since Kim Jong-un took power in Pyongyang in 2011, North Korea has often fired missiles between March and May. Of the 51 missile launches from North Korea, nearly half — 24 — took place in the spring.
The missile launches often protested the annual South Korea-U.S. joint military exercises that kick off in early March. The North Korean military goes into a semi-war posture during the exercise period. Male adults are called to do nighttime training. North Korean jets take off if U.S. fighters are detected. Pyongyang wants to be fully ready in case the United States suddenly makes a real attack during the drills.
North Korea is running short on fuel following the ban on Chinese exports of some petroleum products to North Korea from November in compliance with international sanctions. The already crippled economy will struggle further if North Koreans are mobilized for military drills. Starting with purges and executions of elite members of the military in 2016, Kim’s reign of terror has become notorious.
The regular joint military drills were suspended for the Olympics and Paralympics in Pyeongchang, but will resume in early April. Pyongyang is hardly likely to sit idly once the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises start on the ground and in the air and sea, along with special operations in the South. If it goes as far as to test the atmospheric reentry capabilities of an intercontinental ballistic missile, the consequences could be disastrous as Pyongyang would be crossing a so-called red line assumed by Donald Trump’s administration. Washington won’t tolerate that no matter how friendly Seoul becomes with Pyongyang. One missile launch would completely shatter the hard-achieved dialogue momentum between the two Koreas and trigger a strike from the United States.
Doves have gotten impatient. They are calling for a suspension or deferment of the joint exercises. Moon Chung-in, special adviser to the president on foreign, security and unification affairs, last month proposed cancellation of the spring exercises as there is another full scale combined Ulchi-Freedom Guardian exercise in August.
Conservatives are vehemently opposed to any cancellation or another postponement of the joint military exercises, claiming that would undermine the South Korea-U.S. alliance and indulge North Korea. Society is turning more polarized on the issue of how much to give to Pyongyang. But there is always a middle ground. Military exercises can take place without provoking Pyongyang.
The purpose of a combined military exercise is to enhance team work and synchronization between the South Korean and U.S. armed forces. Capabilities can weaken when they miss one regular exercise.
But a marginal scaling down isn’t likely to affect the joint military drills. For instance, the strategic asset fleet of F-22 Raptor stealth fighters and B-1B Lancer bombers can be downsized. They can rejoin if Pyongyang turns belligerent again.
But Pyongyang must first take sincere actions towards easing tensions on the peninsula. It must at least vow not to test further advanced ICBMs to give a good cause for Seoul and Washington to downsize the joint drills.
At the same time, the economic sanctions must stay intact and be tightened in order to make Pyongyang eager to have dialogue. Officials at North Korea’s spy agency, who are at the top of the ration list, reportedly have not gotten their food handouts for two months. Sanctions are taking a toll on North Korea.
Former U.S. President John F. Kennedy said, “We cannot negotiate with people who say what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is negotiable.” To solve the North Korean nuclear problem through peaceful diplomacy, concessions and compromises are not to be feared: they are essential.
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 21, Page 30
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.