Annual joint military exercises between the American and South Korean (Republic of Korea, or ROK) armed forces began yesterday, the 19th of August, in an atmosphere of surprising calm on the Korean peninsula. These war games have often seen strident criticism from the ROK’s secretive neighbour North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK) in the past. Particularly given the drastic escalation of tensions that occurred earlier this year, the relative inexperience of the DPRK’s new leader Kim Jong-Un, and the unpredictable nature of the DPRK itself, the exercises had been seen as a potential flashpoint. While some North Korean rhetoric condemning the exercises has emerged in the past hour, it is noticeably milder than usual and seemingly indicates the DPRK’s current preference for a resumption of diplomatic talks.
The exercises, named Ulchi Freedom Guardian, involve 30’000 American and 50’000 South Korean troops. These computer simulated war games will continue until the 30th of August, according to the ROK’s defence ministry and the US military command in Seoul. These annual exercises are of a primarily defensive nature according to Kim Min-seok, a spokesman for ROK defence ministry “Ulchi Freedom Guardian…is a joint exercise by South Korea and the United States to prepare for possible provocation from North Korea. The Korean peninsula is under constant threat from the North and the joint exercise is indispensable to maintaining stability” while ROK president Park Guen-hye cited the drills as vital for South Korea’s “readiness posture”.
In previous years, North Korea has acted extremely aggressively to these exercises, denouncing them in media statements and suggesting they are preparation for an invasion. During the extreme escalation of tensions on the peninsula in spring, Pyongyang threatened retaliation with nuclear weapons if US-South Korean war games went ahead. In the build-up to these well publicised exercises however, the atmosphere remained calm. This morning, the North Korean Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea belatedly released a statement via state media condemning the drills as a “provocation” and threated South Korea with unspecified consequences.
However, this rhetoric is extremely mild by North Korean standards, particularly in light of Pyongyang’s behaviour earlier this year. During that period, in response to increased UN sanctions in light of its nuclear weapons program, the DPRK severed communication links with the south, made almost daily threats of nuclear annihilation, and moved military hardware such as missiles towards the coastal regions, placing nations throughout East Asia on alert.
Since then however, tensions have begun to calm, with the resumption of talks between the two Koreas beginning. The countries are working towards reopening the joint Kaesong industrial park, which has North Korean workers and South Korean managers. The park is seen as an important barometer of relations between the countries, and was closed earlier this year. A possible re-opening would be a notable conciliatory gesture from the North, though one not without self-interest, as the park provides a much needed source of hard currency for the impoverished DPRK. Pyongyang also agreed on Sunday to talks about reuniting families separated by the end of the Korean War in 1953, another measure that was seen as a key inter-Korea cooperation project. Lastly, the DPRK is also angling for a resumption of South Korean tourist tours of Diamond Mountain, suspended since the shooting of a South Korean woman by a North Korean soldier in 2008 and also a much needed source of foreign currency for the DPRK.
As such, it currently appears that the North has chosen to take a calm approach to the current exercises in order to facilitate much needed diplomatic gains. This is a common practice in DPRK foreign policy – a rapid escalation of tensions featuring apocalyptic threats is followed by equally sudden de-escalation, with the promise of talks on diplomatic issues used as leverage to extract developmental aid and other concessions. The DPRK’s mild behaviour and current easing of tensions is likely a manifestation of this trend.