The Vigilant Ace 18 drills was the latest of several major South Korean-U.S. military exercises that take place each year. Their purpose is to deter aggression and reassure allies. Although Russia and China call for a suspension of these drills in return for a freeze on North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons testing, North Korea’s provocative behavior has made these drills more important for Seoul, Washington, and other partners. North Korea’s launch of the new Hwasong-15 ICBM has reinforced the critical nature of the alliance.
After the Hwasong-15 test, South Korea responded with a simulated missile strike conducted only six minutes following Pyongyang’s launch to show that the Republic of Korea will not tolerate preemptive strikes. Also, according to the Ministry of National Defense, South Korea will increase its military spending by seven percent in 2018.
The Blue House will not tolerate North Korea’s provocations but also opposes measures that could provoke Pyongyang. Unfortunately, North Korean aggressive behavior has narrowed Moon’s room for maneuver, At the same time, the new South Korean government of President Moon Jae-in strives to lessen tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
The regional arms race will only increase as North Korea advances its nuclear program. The high tensions also raise the risk of accidental war. Only a negotiated solution to the crisis will reduce the danger of misunderstanding and miscalculation.
Many in Washington and Seoul assume that North Korea will never negotiate the elimination of its nuclear weapons. They see the only enduring to the Korean crisis as regime change in Pyongyang and reunification.
Others, including Moon’s ruling Democratic Party of Korea, want better intra-Korean relations along with enhanced military readiness. Some experts see a potential for negotiation if the DPRK, having tested its more advanced missile capabilities, would cease further testing in exchange for economic and social concessions.
China and Russia can make an important contribution to ending the Korean crisis. President Moon is visiting China this week and is eager to restore ties with Beijing, which have been strained over the past year. China has relaxed some of its economic pressure on South Korea and could further its goal of limiting regional tensions and arms buildup by increasing pressure on Pyongyang to stop testing missiles and nuclear weapons.
Moscow has options here too. Russia probably has better ties with the North Korean government than any other major country. In past months, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has made exertions to restart regional peace talks. Russia has also usefully sought to highlight to Pyongyang the economic benefits of partnering with its neighbors on trans-Peninsula economic projects.
Lavrov and his Chinese counterpart have reaffirmed the Russian-Chinese three-stage roadmap for resolving the North Korean crisis—a dual suspension of major ROK-U.S. defense exercises, like the one last week, in exchange for an end to North Korean missile and nuclear tests, bilateral talks involving Pyongyang on general principles, and finally Six-Party talks (first informal, then formal) covering nuclear and non-nuclear issues aimed at establishing an all-encompassing and enduring Northeast Asian security system.
Washington has so far objected to freezing recent North Korean gains in its nuclear and missile capabilities as well as to equating these illegal programs, prohibited by UN resolutions, with the fully legal joint defense exercises between the three partners. But both U.S. and ROK officials seem more open to considering the last two stages.
Moon sees Moscow as a potential partner in achieving region-wide peace and prosperity. President Trump also wants to work with China and Russia to avert a major war. Russian, China, U.S., and Korean experts should make 2018 a year of brainstorming a solution to the Korean crisis.
Richard Weitz is Director of Center for Political-Military Analysis, Hudson Institute. This article was co-authored by Jiwon Park, an Asan Academy Young Fellow, and Yeseul Woo is an East-West Center Asia-Pacific Leadership Fellow.