Will the US-South Korean Military Exercises Disrupt the Trump-Kim Jong-un Summit?

April 2018 will see the launch of the annual large-scale US-South Korean military exercises, put off by one month on account of the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. What makes them fundamentally different is that they should be held against the background of preparations for a sensational summit between the North Korean and US leaders, scheduled for May. This is an additional intrigue and a challenge to the unique situation that has emerged on the Korean Peninsula. 

Korea is facing a situation, which was absolutely unthinkable a mere month ago: Leaders of countries that balanced on the verge of a hot war throughout 2017 – the DPRK, on the one hand, and the US and the Republic of Korea, on the other – decided, unexpectedly for most politicians and experts all over the world, to put aside mutual threats and not just go over to talks they (primarily the US) had been evading for a long time but prepare and hold two summits in a matter of six weeks. 

The most incredible news was, of course, that preparations for a US-North Korean summit had begun. This event seems all the more unique since it was prepared by both countries’ intelligence services, which operated in strict secrecy without informing their respective foreign ministries or other national agencies. A New York Times article described in detail how the US, North Korean and South Korean intelligence heads had cooperated behind the scenes and pointed to the waning role of the US State Department with its dearth of competent staff, including in its Korean division. 

This U-turn gave rise to numerous questions, including on its causes, agenda and venue. To be sure, each party has come up with its own interpretation. 

Washington predictably presents Kim Jong-un’s initiative as its own victory and a result of sanctions and US military and political pressure, which eventually scared the North Korean leaders and forced them into what amounts to a capitulation. Of course, Pyongyang explains its step as a show of goodwill and a sincere striving for peace that it repeatedly demonstrated in the past; its defense potential, which got a dramatic boost in late 2017, was an added incentive. As is common knowledge, North Korea announced in late November 2017 that it had carried out its missile and nuclear weapons programs, creating a reliable nuclear shield that guaranteed its security. 

Analyzing the first official reactions from the leading countries concerned, primarily the United States, does not give cause for much optimism. It is unclear whether the US-North Korean summit will take place at all, and if it does, what results it will bring. 

What is clear is that the parties’ bargaining positions remain generally the same, with Washington and above all Seoul seeking to demonstrate both pointed toughness in upholding them and inexorable solidarity and coordination in their moves vis-à-vis North Korea. 

As before, the United States and South Korea are claiming that the final aim of the negotiations should only be North Korea’s full denuclearization. Moreover, they continue putting forward preconditions. According to what White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on March 9, the President will not hold the meeting until he sees North Korea take concrete steps and concrete moves so that the President has something before the meeting. 

Another American demand is that any agreement with North Korea should include a verification mechanism aimed at an irreversible denuclearization. 

Neither Donald Trump, nor Moon Jae-in intends to relax, let alone lift, sanctions against Pyongyang during preparations for the summits. This means that their plan is to build up pressure on Kim Jong-un in order to make him more compliant. 

As is easy to see, the US and its allies have repeatedly advanced the same array of demands, which were always resolutely turned down by Pyongyang as unacceptable. It is hard to imagine that Kim Jong-un, who claimed time and again that his nuclear missile deterrent could not be subject to any talks, will agree to accept the American ultimatum. 

In early March, Korean diplomats presented an upgraded approach to dealing with the United States. For now, North Korea is proposing a negotiating formula that enables each party to broach any issue of interest or concern to it. This is certainly a much more flexible stance in comparison with what Pyongyang categorically insisted on until recently. Its former position can be summarized as follows: “We will not participate in any talks intended to discuss our missile and nuclear programs.” But now North Korea has tipped off Washington via the South Koreans that Kim Jong-un is committed to denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula; there will be no reasons for him to possess nuclear weapons if there are no military threats for the DPRK and guarantees are provided of the perpetuation of the North Korean regime. He also repeatedly recalled the behests of his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, who had founded the DPRK and wanted a nuclear-free future for the Korean Peninsula. 

Pyongyang has also repeatedly explained what it understands by external guarantees of its security: US troop pullout from South Korea, withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from territories adjoining North Korea (Japan, Guam, etc.), cessation of the regular US-South Korean military exercises, establishment of diplomatic relations with the United States and Japan, lifting of international and unilateral sanctions, provision of economic aid to compensate for sanctions damage, etc. 

It is clear that Washington also resolutely rejected these demands in the past and would most likely do so this time too. 

But something has changed. I am referring to a new flurry of diplomatic activity and maneuvers, more vigorous than had been seen in years. In itself, this fact certainly should be commended. But it’s debatable how much room there is for these maneuvers. In my view, this space is quite restricted. 

Of course, Moon Jae-in’s special representative in Pyongyang has agreed on some points that were dropped from the published communications. The South Korean president is trying to be a “real Korean” for Pyongyang and a reliable ally for Washington, a difficult task in itself. 

It can be assumed, therefore, that the information and details of agreements that were in fact reached in Pyongyang and then relayed by the South Koreans to Washington are not identical and differ in tone. So, if the grand project fails, both Washington and Pyongyang can say that they were inadequately informed by the mediator and misinterpreted each other’s intentions. 

On the other hand, however, the ball is in the game and North Korea at any rate has calculated it to the minutest detail. They have established contacts with the Americans during the PyeongChang Olympics and Pyongyang assumes that it has stronger trump cards in hand. 

On the one hand, the US is seriously concerned over the success of North Korea’s missile and nuclear program and believes that it can deliver a nuclear strike against the North American continent. 

On the other hand, Washington is disappointed to see both its Far Eastern allies – Shinzo Abe’s conservative Japan and Moon Jae-in’s “liberal” South Korea – are adamant in their rejection of any suggestion of a US military operation against North Korea. It has obviously dawned on Washington that if it ignores the allies’ strictly negative attitude and does deliver a military strike against North Korea in line with the “bloody nose” concept peddled by the Trump administration hawks in recent months, it will not only drastically damage relations with Tokyo and Seoul but may also lose them as allies. As is only natural, this reality has restricted Washington’s room for maneuver. 

More than that, the unexpected and dynamic progress in inter-Korean relations that was achieved, against Washington’s will, in January-March 2018 has given Pyongyang some leverage with the United States. 

As a result, Washington has relatively less latitude on the Korean Peninsula and around it, while Pyongyang’s negotiating positions have strengthened by comparison. Clearly profiting from these circumstances, North Korea has decided to launch a diplomatic offensive in the hope to get limited, if tangible, advantages. As a reasonable goodwill gesture, it has volunteered to impose a moratorium on its missile and nuclear tests pending the two summits, which most likely is suggested by the current technological stage in the development of their military programs, which does not require missile launches. (It is another matter that Washington is certain to interpret this step as a sign of weakness and North Korea’s concession under pressure.) 

During the upcoming diplomatic bickering, the North hopes, at the very least, to have the opposing party considerably reduce the scale of the US-South Korean exercises in April, if not renounce these altogether. Most importantly, North Korea hopes that the economic sanctions will be relaxed and the policy of introducing further sanctions abandoned. Possibly it will succeed in influencing Washington’s current unwavering stance on immediate denuclearization and achieve a staggered solution implying at first a provisional freeze on missile and nuclear activities based on parallel steps. In fact, this means that they will be prodding the US towards a model similar to the Russian-Chinese proposal of July 4, 2017, on a double freeze and a three-stage plan to settle the Korean problem. 

It is hardly possible to predict the outcome of the unfolding interesting stage of diplomatic tussle. Much will depend on the alignment of domestic political forces in South Korea and particularly in the United States, where the hawks are still stronger than the “negotiators” (as is confirmed by the replacement, on March 13, 2018, of the “dove” Rex Tillerson with the “hawk” Mike Pompeo, who previously held the post of CIA Director, and the comeback of the “charismatic neocon,” John Bolton). The fragile dialogue may fall apart at any moment. 

At the same time it is on record that some US presidents (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush) veered towards deep and constructive negotiations with North Korea after an initial period of tough confrontation. This is also part of the US foreign policy tradition. The “Trump factor” should not be underestimated either, given his unpredictability and his knack for tossing negotiations whichever way he likes. 

Yet, at this turning-point, the annual Foal Eagle/Key Resolve joint exercises are about to begin contrary to repeated leaks that the drills might be canceled this year. As the biggest US-South Korean war games they have the potential to bury the fragile diplomatic process. 

So far we are getting controversial signals from the participants in the upcoming summits. The exercises are held on a somewhat larger scale than the massive event last year, when they involved 320,000 troops, including 15,000 Americans. This year’s figures are 323,000 and 23,000 Americans, respectively [1] , but their timeframe (usually two months) has been somewhat reduced. What is more important is that the scenario of the drills is not so warlike and is more “delicate,” failing as it does to mention the “decapitation,” that is, the need to destroy North Korea’s top leaders as soon as possible. This restraint and low-key character of combat objectives have even elicited protests from the South Korean conservative opposition whose leaders claim that the “lower level of the exercises and military trust between the US and South Korea is sending a wrong signal to Kim Jong-un.” It is not accidental that South Korean and US media note that Kim Jong-un has shown restraint and unusual flexibility towards this year’s military exercises. 

As is only natural, this peaceable disposition rules out any sharp North Korean response to US/South Korean drills and points to Kim Jong-un’s determination to finalize preparations for the North Korean-US summit. There is no need to explain that it will be an epoch-making event regardless of its outcome. And it is this goal and not the military exercises in the south of the Korean Peninsula that Kim Jong-un prioritizes at the moment.

[1]   https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/19/us/politics/us-south-korea-joint-military-exercises.html

NY Times, "U.S. and South Korea to Resume Joint Military Exercises"

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