Do US-South Korean war games risk escalating North Korea crisis?

Story highlights

  • Major military exercises by the US and South Korea are held twice a year
  • North Korea considers the war games a show of aggression towards it

Hong Kong (CNN)To critics, they're a needless provocation. To advocates, an essential way to get troops combat ready.

The US and South Korean militaries begin war games next week at a time of unprecedented tensions with North Korea. The exercises are held twice yearly, typically incurring the wrath of Pyongyang, which views them as a show of aggression.
Kim Jong Un appeared to reference the joint drills Tuesday, saying he would "watch" US actions "a little more" before making a decision whether to launch missiles into the waters around Guam -- a plan that was outlined last week as US and North Korea traded increasingly hostile rhetoric.
    Benjamin Habib, a Korea expert at Australia's La Trobe University, said opinions about military drills fall into two broad camps.
    Those who fear canceling drills could "invite further escalations" from Kim Jong Un's regime, and those who think "drills are an unnecessary provocation" and suspending them or calling them off would significantly lower tensions.
    The latter is an approach that China has called for as a first step to defusing the crisis.
    The drills themselves often mimic real-life combat situations -- amphibious landings, intense live-fire exercises, counter-terrorism drills and simulated or tabletop battle plans.
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    Annual exercises

    Joint US-South Korean war games have been held since the Korean War ended in an armistice and ceasefire in 1953.
    Presently, two major exercises are held annually, Foal Eagle and Key Resolve (FEKR) in March or April, and Ulchi Freedom Guardian (UFG) in August.
    Both exercises, according to US Forces Korea, are designed to "highlight the longstanding military partnership" between the two countries and improve stability and security on the Korean Peninsula.
    Unlike the drills earlier this year, which were heavy on live fire exercises -- involving dozens of tanks, helicopters and jets attacking mock enemy bases and storming positions -- Ulchi Freedom Guardian is generally lower key. Around 25,000 US service members took part last year, in exercises that focused on reacting to terrorist and chemical weapons scenarios.
    Speaking after the exercise in March, USFK deputy commander Lt. Gen. Thomas Bergeson said the alliance's mission "is first and foremost to deter any aggression from North Korea."
    "If that deterrence fails then we are in a position to defend the Republic of Korea. And if we defend, we are going to defeat the enemy and win," he said in a statement.
    Anti-war activists stage a rally ahead of annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian (UFG) joint US-South Korea military exercises in August 2016.

    Combat ready

    Daniel Pinkston, a professor of International Relations at Troy University in Seoul, said the exercises are vital practice for forces based in South Korea, especially those US troops who rotate into the region on year-long deployments.
    "There are a lot of scenarios of tasks you might have to do during a very wide range of scenarios," he said. "Very complex things that have to be coordinated and executed."
    Not holding the exercises, Pinkston added, risks weakening "the capacity of the South Korean military and the USFK to respond to a variety of military contingencies" and could invite aggression.
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    Provoking Pyongyang?

    Critics of the exercises say they may needlessly provoke North Korea at a time when tensions are already heightened due to Pyongyang's stepped-up missile and nuclear testing.
    "Every time these war games happen there's a problem -- that a deterrence signal bleeds into a provocation from North Korea's perspective," said John Delury, a professor at Seoul's Yonsei University.
    "The US and South Korea can call the joint exercises defensive and regular as much as they want, but it's not defensive if you're sitting in Pyongyang."
    One of North Korea's stated reason for building up its nuclear and ballistic missile programs is the fear of US-led regime change, as in Iraq and Libya.
    Andrei Lankov, a director at KoreaRisk.com, wrote for CNN in April the fate of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is especially pertinent -- "the only dictator in history who agreed to abandon his nuclear program in exchange for promised economic benefits."

    Scale down exercises?

    Even though next week's exercises are more simulated and present a lesser threat than Foal Eagle Key Resolve, "from the North Korean, perspective, (they are) still a major military provocation," said Tong Zhao, a fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing.
    "There is debate in Washington and Seoul about the possibility to scale down the exercises and its possible security consequences," Zhao added.
    "Many US experts have pointed out that in face there is room to modify and scale down the exercises without seriously undermining the military preparedness."
    A US AH-64 Apache helicopter fires rockets during a joint live firing drill between South Korea and the US on April 26, 2017.
    Pinkston said calls to reduce or suspend joint exercises are mistaken, and risk increasing rather than reducing the threat from North Korea.
    "It would be reckless and irresponsible, considering North Korea's behavior," he said, pointing to the increased missile and nuclear testing.
    "If you were to cancel the exercises now you would invite more of the same ... if you demonstrate you can be coerced, you're inviting more coercion."
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    Time for a freeze?

    South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been actively pursuing a diplomatic option since he came to power earlier this year -- though an initial attempt to restart talks with Pyongyang was rebuffed.
    In a speech Tuesday, Moon said Seoul "will work closely with the United States to break through the security crisis."
    "But we cannot rely solely on our allies," he added. "We should take the initiative in solving the problem on the Korean Peninsula."
    However, he emphasized that any solution "must begin with a nuclear freeze," and "North Korea must stop additional nuclear and missile provocations."
    Earlier this year, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi suggested a dual freeze, whereby North Korea might "suspend its nuclear and missile activities in exchange for the suspension of large-scale US-Republic of Korea military exercises."
    In an editorial Tuesday, nationalistic state-run tabloid Global Times said South Korea should "act as a buffer" between the US and North Korea and urged Seoul to halt the upcoming joint military exercise.
    The dual freeze approach put forward by China and Russia often "gets a bad rap" in Washington because of who backs it, said Delury. "But it's a way for both sides to take a step back, lower the temperature (and) explore a diplomatic option."
    Zhao said such a freeze could "have prevented North Korea from fast advancing their missile programs, especially from acquiring an ICBM capability so quickly."
    However, Pinkston described such a deal as a "completely asymmetric," pointing out that regular military exercises held by North Korea and China would not be covered by it.