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From Fear to Understanding: Change of North Korea's Attitude towards the US-South Korea Military Exercises

In the first half of each year, the U.S. and South Korea carry out two routine joint military exercises - the Foal Eagle and Key Resolve. On April 1, about 11,500 U.S. troops and 300,000 South Korean soldiers took part in the Foal Eagle joint military drills, which were delayed because of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and the Winter Paralympic Games. First, the exercises schedule was cut by half, and the number of strategic weapons delivered from the US was reduced remarkably. Second, the present versions of Foal Eagle and Key Resolve are more defensive-oriented rather than offensive-oriented. In a nutshell, the military exercises display more “routineness” of the US-South Korea military cooperation than a “purposeful demonstration of force".

Before North Korea announced the completion of the construction of nuclear forces last November, any military actions (including military exercises) targeted against the DPRK from the US and South Korea would certainly cause strong reaction, which brought to the explosive situation on the Korean Peninsula in 2016-2017. The North Korea’s international political context often interprets the U.S.-South Korea military exercises as a real "war game". In fact, the U.S.-South Korea military exercises tend to have two sets of schemes, one aiming at turning military exercises into real military actions against the North, just as "OPLAN5027, 5029, 5015 battle plans" exposed. There is no gainsaying that properly fear of U.S.-South Korea military drills served as one of the key driving forces to accelerated nuclear arms development of the DPRK. In the commentary, titled "Is warming between the North and the South of the Korean peninsula possible?”, written for the Valdai Club website, we had talked about the problem whether with the completion of nuclear force construction the DPRK immunity to the US-South Korea military exercises is to be greatly enhanced. When Kim Jong-un received the South Korea special envoy Chung Eui-yong, he made it clear that he could understand the upcoming U.S.-South Korea military drills postponed by the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and the Winter Paralympic Games. It showed the change of the basic attitude of the DPRK after its nuclear weapons upgrade, which could become rather receptive to the U.S.-South Korea military exercises, that the military exercise is a must for the South.

The "restraint" and "routineness" of the exercise, as well as the North Korea's increased immunity to US-South Korea military exercises, jointly determined the North's basic stance like "sitting on the sidelines". But it is necessary to do some “showcase projects” to handle the domestic and international politics. So the North Korea's official media would condemn and protest against the US-South Korea military exercises, but in "not too harsh” tone. Moreover, there still exists the possibility that the North could respond to the US-South Korea military exercises with a military action, because the game mode in the past several years has been repeatedly put on a show.

But what we should certify is that the upcoming Pyongyang-Seoul and Pyongyang-Washington summits together with the positive evolution on the peninsula are the causes of the current status of the military drills. Someone might question the possibility of an accident during the US-South Korea military exercises, which would undermine the prospects of the Pyongyang-Seoul and Pyongyang-Washington negotiation processes. Well, nothing is impossible, but something is a "minimal probability event."

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.