Kim Yo-jong dials up pressure over joint drill
Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korea's leader, warned Sunday that annual summertime military exercises by Seoul and Washington could undermine inter-Korean relations, putting South Korea in a bind over the drills once again.
“For some days I have been hearing an unpleasant story that joint military exercises between the south Korean army and the U.S. forces could go ahead as scheduled,” said Kim, vice department director of the Central Committee of the North’s ruling Workers' Party, in an English-language statement carried by the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) Sunday.
“I view this as an undesirable prelude which seriously undermines the will of the top leaders of the north and the south wishing to see a step taken toward restoring mutual trust and which further beclouds the way ahead of the north-south relations.”
Kim also referred to the restoration of inter-Korean communication lines last week, which has led to speculation of another leaders’ summit, and said that the South Koreans are “freely interpreting its meaning their own way.”
On July 27, the two Koreas revived four hotlines that were unilaterally severed by Pyongyang on June 9, 2020, in protest of what it claimed were Seoul's failures to prevent activists from sending propaganda leaflets across the border. The Blue House revealed that a series of letter exchanges has been made by President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un since April, which led to the decision to restore the communication lines.
She pointed to “undesirable turns” over the past three years in inter-Korean relations despite the “momentous” joint declarations at the two leaders’ summits at the Panmunjom and in Pyongyang in 2018.
In recent years, Kim has used bellicose rhetoric against Seoul and Washington as a mouthpiece for her older brother, who seems to be refraining from personally making remarks that could jeopardize future negotiations with the United States.
Pyongyang has traditionally protested Seoul-Washington military exercises, which it views as war rehearsals, and such annual springtime and summertime drills have often been times of exacerbated tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Such large-scale joint drills have been postponed or scaled down since 2018, in the spirit of North-U.S. denuclearization talks and more recently because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Kim said in her statement that there have been no discussions on “the scale or form of the joint military exercises,” which are coming up “at a crucial time.
“Our government and army will closely follow whether the south Korean side stages hostile war exercises in August or makes other bold decision,” she continued. “Hope or despair? Choice is not made by us.”
She seemed to be linking the combined military exercises with the future direction of inter-Korean relations, which also ties into reviving North-U.S. denuclearization talks that have been at a standstill since 2019.
South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense on Monday said that Seoul and Washington have yet to finalize the timing and format of the joint drills but said it had no comment on Kim’s statement.
Boo Seung-chan, spokesman for the Defense Ministry, said Monday, “The Republic of Korea (ROK) and the United States are in close negotiations taking into consideration overall circumstances, including the spread of Covid-19 situation in relation to the command post exercise, maintaining a combined defense posture, creating conditions for a wartime operational control [Opcon] transition, and supporting diplomatic efforts for a policy of permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.”
He continued, “However, the timing, scale, and method of the South Korea-U.S. command post exercise for the second half of the year have not been finalized.”
Lee Jong-joo, spokesperson for Seoul’s Unification Ministry, said in a briefing Monday that the “South Korea-U.S. joint military drills should not be used as an opportunity to heighten tensions on the Korean Peninsula under any circumstances.”
A Blue House official told reporters on Kim’s statement, “Our government will do its best to make practical progress toward the peace process on the Korean Peninsula through inter-Korean and North-U.S. dialogue without haste."
Any decision on the joint exercise — whether to reduce its scale, postpone it or cancel it all together — has to come through close discussion between Seoul and Washington and is a tricky matter as it ties in with the alliance’s readiness posture.
Seoul and Washington’s military are reportedly in talks to conduct crisis management staff training (CMST) from Aug. 10 to 13, as a prelude to the summertime combined command post training (CCPT) scheduled from Aug. 16 to 26.
Last Friday, a senior Unification Ministry official said it would be desirable to postpone the summertime combine exercises for the sake of inter-Korean and U.S.-North Korea dialogue.
On the same day, South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook held a phone conversation with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and discussed the security environment on the Korean Peninsula.
“Both sides agreed on the importance of maintaining a robust U.S.-ROK combined defense posture and continuing communication on important issues,” the U.S. Defense Department said in a statement, to ensure that the bilateral alliance “remains the linchpin of peace and security on the Korean peninsula and in the Indo-Pacific.”
A Pentagon spokesman told the Voice of America Saturday, “Combined training events are a ROK-U.S. bilateral decision, and any decisions will be a mutual agreement.”
Song Young-gil, head of the ruling Democratic Party, said in a party meeting Monday, "There is no choice but to proceed as scheduled" in regard to the joint drills scheduled for later this month.
He added that unlike Kim Yo-jong’s claims that they are “hostile war exercises,” they were “defensive drills to maintain peace.”
Song said, “The joint drills will be a computer-simulated combined command post training without maneuver exercises,” adding, “we are preparing appropriately for the Covid-19 situation and the peace process on the Korean Peninsula."
He added that the drills “are essential training for the verification of full operational capability (FOC),” a step needed for the transfer of wartime Opcon from the United States to South Korea.
BY SARAH KIM [email@example.com]