China, Russia Offer 'Freeze for Freeze' Peace Plan for Korea: US Responds with Massive Military Exercise
August 20, 2017
The Associated Press & Stuart Leavenworth / The Charelotte Observer
America's annual joint military exercises with South Korea always frustrate North Korea. Following Donald Trump's ominous "fire and fury" threat, the war games --set to begin Monday -- hold more potential to provoke than ever. Meanwhile, Steve Bannon told the American Prospect that Washington might consider a "freeze-for-freeze" deal in which North Korea suspends its nuclear buildup with verifiable inspections and, in exchange, the US removes its troops from the peninsula.
A Look at US-South Korea
War Games and How North Might Respond
The Associated Press
SEOUL, South Korea (August 19, 2017) -- America's annual joint military exercises with South Korea always frustrate North Korea. The war games set to begin Monday may hold more potential to provoke than ever, given President Donald Trump's "fire and fury" threats and Pyongyang's as-yet-unpursued plan to launch missiles close to Guam.
Will the allies keep it low-key, or focus on projecting strength? An examination of this year's drills and how the North might respond to them:
The War Games
The Ulchi Freedom Guardian drills, which will run through Aug. 31, will be the first large-scale military exercise between the allies since North Korea successfully flight-tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles in July and threatened to bracket Guam with intermediate range ballistic missile fire earlier this month.
Despite some calls to postpone or drastically modify drills to ease the hostility on the Korean Peninsula, US and South Korean military officials say that the long-scheduled exercises will go ahead as planned.
The drills, which began in the 1970s and will involve 17,500 American troops and 50,000 South Korean soldiers this year, consist mainly of computer simulations aimed at honing joint-decision making and planning and improving command operations.
About 25,000 US service members joined last year's UFG drills. An official from US Forces Korea, who didn't want to be named citing office rules, said that the number of participating American troops can marginally change depending on how training events are designed and that the lower number this year doesn't represent an effort to downsize the drills.
The United States and South Korea also hold larger war games in the spring, called Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, which involve live-fire exercises and training with tanks, aircraft and warships.
There's media speculation that the allies might try to keep this year's drills low-key by not dispatching long-range bombers and other US strategic assets to the region. But that possibility worries some, who say it would send the wrong message to both North Korea and the South, where there are fears that the North's advancing nuclear capabilities may eventually undermine a decades-long alliance with the United States.
"If anything, the joint exercises must be strengthened," Cheon Seongwhun, who served as a national security adviser to former conservative South Korean President Park Geun-hye, said in an interview.
Impoverished North Korea hates the drills in part because it must frequently respond with its own expensive displays of military might.
During last year's drills, the North successfully test-fired for the first time a submarine-launched ballistic missile ruler Kim Jong Un then praised as the "success of all successes." Shortly after the drills, the North carried out its fifth and biggest nuclear test, which it claimed was of a "standardized" warhead that could fit on a variety of its rockets.
During this year's war games in March, North Korea launched four extended-range Scud missiles into the sea in what it described as a rehearsal for striking US military bases in Japan.
It's almost certain that this year's drills will trigger some kind of reaction from North Korea. The question is how strong it will be.
Some experts say North Korea is mainly focused on the bigger picture of testing its bargaining power against the United States with its new long-range missiles and likely has no interest in letting things get too tense during the drills.
If this is right, expect the usual propaganda belligerence in state media or low-level provocations like artillery and short-range missile drills. Or perhaps the North could conduct its first submarine-launched ballistic missile test since last August, which, if successful, would allow it to demonstrate serious military capability without posing an immediate direct threat to the United States.
"North Korea has already flight-tested ICBMs twice this year and will probably take a wait-and-see approach to assess the impact of stronger pressure from the United States and China and maybe even seek an opportunity for talks, rather than quickly move forward with another test," said Moon Seong Mook, a former South Korean military official and current senior analyst for the Seoul-based Korea Research Institute for National Strategy.
But others think the North might use the drills as an excuse to conduct another ICBM test or maybe even act on its threat to lob missiles into the waters near Guam.
"North Korea is probably looking at all the cards it has to maximize pressure against the United States, and the drills provide a good opportunity to do it," Cheon said.
Worries about the Future
There are calls in both the United States and South Korea for the allies to pause or downsize the joint military exercises to reduce strain and potentially persuade North Korea into talks to freeze its nuclear program.
David Wright, a US analyst from the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in an emailed statement that the United States should "postpone or significantly restructure" the exercises to reduce the risk of military confrontation.
"Smart military planning means ensuring that exercises do not enflame an already tense situation," Wright said.
South Korea's Kyunghyang Shinmun newspaper said in an Aug. 11 editorial that the allies could gain a bargaining chip in efforts to persuade the North into meaningful nuclear talks by halting or scaling down the joint drills.
"The US-South Korean drills aren't a sacred realm," the newspaper said, referring to the time that Washington and Seoul agreed to cancel their large-scale Team Spirit drills in the early 1990s to induce the North to join denuclearization talks.
These arguments might not win over South Korean conservatives whose main fear is that a fully functional ICBM in Pyongyang would eventually force the United States to consider a peace treaty with the North and also the removal of the tens of thousands of American soldiers stationed in South Korea.
While expressing a desire to reach out to the North, South Korea's liberal President Moon Jae-in has also ordered his military officials to schedule talks with the United States to increase the warhead limits on South Korean missiles, and his prime minister said recently that the country should also consider acquiring nuclear-powered submarines to better cope with North Korean threats.
Some conservatives want more strength, however, and are calling for the United States to bring back the tactical nuclear weapons that were withdrawn from the South in the 1990s.
US-South Korea War Games Start Monday
As Pyongyang Warns of 'Catastrophe'
Stuart Leavenworth / The Charelotte Observer
WASHINGTON (August 17, 2017) -- Are tensions cooling in the Korean Peninsula? The United States and South Korea will find out Monday, when the two allies are scheduled to start joint military exercises that are known to anger North Korea, sometimes triggering a show of force.
This year's war games come at a particularly delicate moment. There have been exchanges of war rhetoric between President Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong Un. Trump's chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has further complicated the situation, by stating in an interview there's "no military option" in North Korea while floating a possible deal with Pyongyang that would leave Seoul hanging.
Amid all this back and forth, the US and South Korean military will simulate warfare with North Korea from August 21 to 31, well aware that North Korea could respond with another missile test.
"Over the course of the next two weeks I expect tensions to escalate," said Scott A. Snyder, a Korea specialist with the Council on Foreign Relations who previously was the Asia Foundation's representative in Seoul. "This is always a sensitive issue, but it is more hair-trigger as the North Koreans are very sensitive to the likely additional nuclear-capable aircraft flyovers."
The United States says biannual exercises are defensive in nature, but North Korea and China have long criticized them as a provocation and an affront to regional security.
"There certainly will be some reaction," said J.D. Williams, a retired Marine colonel and defense policy researcher at the RAND Corporation in California. He said he wouldn't be surprised if North Korea conducted some kind of missile launch -- not a test but a defiant demonstration of might.
North Korea last week threatened to fire four missiles toward Guam, a US territory, a rebuttal to President Donald Trump's "fire and fury" remarks of Aug. 8. North Korea's Kim later backed off that threat, saying he'd watch "the foolish and stupid conduct of the Yankees" before deciding on the launch, a decision that Trump quickly tweeted was "very wise and well reasoned."
The exchange suggested that cooler heads were prevailing in the latest US standoff with North Korea. But next week's war games could rekindle hostilities. On Thursday, North Korean state media declared that the military exercises will "further drive the situation on the Korean Peninsula into a catastrophe."
Held every fall in South Korea, the Ulchi-Freedom Guardian war games are the world's largest computerized command and control exercise. Some 30,000 US soldiers and more than 50,000 South Korean troops usually take part, along with hundreds of thousands of first responders and civilians, some practicing for a potential chemical weapons attack.
The exercise, along with one in March, often triggers anti-war protests in South Korea and condemnation from China. While Chinese President Xi Jinping has been noticeably cool toward Kim Jong Un, and has been critical of North Korea's development of nuclear weapons, China has long wanted the United States to shrink its military footprint in Asia, including some 12 bases in South Korea and Japan.
In an editorial Monday, China's Global Times newspaper, an arm of the Communist Party's People's Daily, lambasted the decision by the United States and South Korea to go ahead with Monday's exercises.
"The drill will definitely provoke Pyongyang more, and Pyongyang is expected to make a more radical response," the newspaper said. "If South Korea really wants no war on the Korean Peninsula, it should try to stop this military exercise."
North Korea has been known to react strongly during the biannual war games. In 2014, the north fired off scud missiles during the March exercises held by the US-South Korean command, called Foul Eagle.
During the 2015 Ulchi-Freedom Guardian exercises, North Korea and South Korea exchanged artillery and rocket fire over their border. That exchange came after two South Korean soldiers were maimed stepping on land mines in the Demilitarized Zone. South Korea accused North Korean soldiers of sneaking across the border and planting the land mines.
China and Russia have been urging the United States to consider a "freeze for freeze" agreement to reduce tensions. In such a deal, Pyongyang would agree to suspend its tests of missiles and nuclear weapons, and Washington and Seoul would agree to suspend large-scale military exercises.
US military experts say such a deal would give a lopsided advantage to North Korea, which could continue its military training even as the US-South Korea exercises were suspended. "It is hard to imagine why the United States would accept that, because of the vulnerability it would create," said Bruce Bennett, a senior defense researcher at RAND.
In a media briefing on Tuesday, US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the United States will continue to hold joint exercises with South Korea.
The next day, the administration's Korea plans were rocked by quotes attributed to Bannon, the White House Chief Strategist. In an interview with the American Prospect, Bannon said he might consider a deal in which North Korea suspended its nuclear buildup with verifiable inspections and the United States removed its troops from the peninsula.
The comments come as many in South Korea are uncertain about Washington's commitment to the 64-year old US-South Korean alliance. As McClatchy reported last month, numerous South Korean lawmakers support their country developing its own nuclear weapons program, to counter the threat from the north.
South Korea has two major concerns with the Trump administration. One is a question about commitment. The other is the potential for Trump to launch a preemptive military strike on North Korea without consulting Seoul, which would bear the brunt of Pyongyang's response.
On Tuesday, South Korean President Moon Jae In sent a blunt warning to the White House. "No one should be allowed to decide on a military action on the Korean Peninsula without South Korean agreement," Moon said in a televised speech.
On Thursday, after meeting with Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Moon said he'd been assured South Korea would be consulted before any military action is taken.
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