Resuming Ulchi Freedom Shield

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Resuming Ulchi Freedom Shield

Michael Green

The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.

When U.S. and ROK forces held their largest live-fire joint military exercises in four years this week, there was anger in Pyongyang and some nervous criticism in Seoul. Critics of the Yoon government predicted the exercises would drive North Korea and China closer together or provoke Pyongyang into resuming nuclear testing. While any action in international security will prompt some counteraction, the fact is that the Ulchi Freedom Shield exercise makes the Korean peninsula and Northeast Asia more secure in the long run. The risk of resuming the exercises was minimal, and the benefit at least fourfold.

First, the exercises never should have been cancelled in the first place. Former President Donald Trump stunned his own Pentagon, the Congress and our allies by announcing unilaterally in front of Kim Jong-un in Singapore that he would end what he called “war games” with the Republic of Korea. Whether there was diplomatic merit to the pause or not, the way Trump went about it was damaging. Trump later confessed that the idea was Putin’s. This was not surprising since Russia and China only benefit from a weakening of readiness and alliance integration between the U.S. and ROK. That Trump used the propaganda language of Pyongyang, Moscow and Beijing and called these regular defensive exercises “wargames” only underscored the reason for concern. The exercises should have been restored even sooner to undo that damage.

Second, the lack of realistic joint training has inevitably meant that U.S. and ROK forces were becoming less ready for real contingencies. For U.S. forces in particular, the ability to train on the ground with ROK counterparts is indispensable. In discussing the halt to exercises with senior U.S. military officers over the past four years, I have noticed steadily growing concern at the costs to readiness of this freeze in exercises. No active-duty general told me it was a bad idea — that was a policy decision above their pay grade — but all readily acknowledged it was becoming increasingly detrimental in operational terms. “We fight tonight” is a motto used by CFC staff to keep deterrence high. The longer this pause in exercises continued the more people worried they might not be ready to fight “until tomorrow night.” Computer simulations can do a lot to prepare forces’ technical and tactical skills and to simulate logistics and other dimensions of combat –but there is no substitute for hard physical training alongside real counterparts.

Third, the resumption of Ulchi Freedom Shield was necessary to shape the expectations and calculations of Pyongyang, Beijing and Moscow. North Korea still has a range of provocations it can pursue to undermine security on the peninsula in pursuit of greater leverage –options ranging from cyber-attacks or military moves in the West Sea to resumption of nuclear and ICBM tests. The U.S. and ROK response will necessarily be proportionate, but Pyongyang will attempt to control the escalation ladder. Put a different way, North Korea will feel more confident engaging in grey zone coercion or asymmetrical provocations if Kim Jong-un believes that the U.S. and ROK will be more afraid of escalation than he is. The resumption of Ulchi Freedom Shield not only improves readiness for contingencies, it also demonstrates a resolve to dominate any escalation in the wake of North Korean provocations. This will help to dissuade Pyongyang from taking such risks going forward.

China and Russia are not within the scope of these resumed exercises — which are focused on deterring and defeating North Korean aggression — but the resumption of the exercises also helps to shape Beijing and Moscow’s expectations. China would like to neutralize the Republic of Korea geopolitically and focus on isolating Japan and Australia and surrounding Taiwan. For its part, Moscow welcomes any weakening of the U.S. alliance system anywhere as an opportunity to pursue Russian irridentist aims in Central Europe. The resumption of Ulchi Freedom Shield demonstrates the strength of the U.S.-ROK alliance to the entire world and just as importantly the willpower of the Yoon government to take proactive steps to shape Korea’s external environment.

Taken together, these are all compelling reasons why these exercises should have been resumed even earlier. There are some costs, to be sure. Pyongyang has responded with predictable anger and China has been more critical than usual of the U.S.-ROK alliance. Diplomatic engagement with both countries will be scratchier. But what was really sacrificed? Pyongyang had already rebuffed the Yoon governments’ proposals for engagement and before that had done almost nothing to reward the Moon government for its unprecedented accommodation of the North.
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