Drills are not a political toolIn a stunning development, a high-ranking official from the Ministry of Unification mentioned the need to suspend the annual Korea-U.S. joint military exercise. His remarks came just three days after the restoration of inter-Korean communication lines through the exchange of letters between President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un — and shortly before the joint drill slated for August. The unification official made clear the ministry’s strong wish to “engage North Korea in mutual cooperation and exchanges in a full-fledged way.”
His comment can be translated into an intention to use the suspension of the joint drill to pave the way for the resumption of South-North dialogue and the mediation between the United States and North Korea to facilitate their talks. The Moon administration’s idea of taking the joint drills hostage to improve the chance of dialogue with Pyongyang for domestic reasons is extremely dangerous. You cannot buy peace in exchange for security.
The Moon administration has persistently showed a negative reaction to the joint military exercise. The ministry official already hinted at the possibility of canceling the drills in a meeting with the heads of the ruling and opposition parties in May. At that time, Moon was exchanging letters with Kim. We wonder if Moon accepted Kim’s demand for a suspension of the drills in return for resuming inter-Korean dialogue.
Restarting talks could be necessary to help break the deadlock in inter-Korean relations and denuclearization talks. But a joint drill cannot be used as a bargaining chip to rekindle dialogue. The U.S. administration’s position is clear. Different from the Trump administration, Joe Biden’s administration is convinced that an armed force is useless without exercises.
In May, the U.S. Defense Department reaffirmed its position that the joint drills are an important means to ensure the preparedness of the alliance, particularly on the Korean Peninsula. A move to suspend joint drills can cause a serous schism in the decades-old alliance. The government must not ignore former U.S. Forces Korea Commander Vincent Brooks’ warning against the “politicization of national defense” in Korea.
Despite apparent risks from Covid-19, no joint drill has been staged since the 2018 U.S.-North summit in Singapore. If the government should accept Pyongyang’s outrageous demand, that’s the same as being dragged around by North Korea. Even now, North Korea is bent on developing tactical nuclear weapons and ratcheting up its capability to launch missiles from submarines. If Seoul wants to resume sincere dialogue with Pyongyang, it must demand it stop such treacherous acts first.