Military exercises not 'game changers' for US-North Korea relations, study says
SEOUL, South Korea — Every year, U.S.-South Korean military exercises draw a strong rebuke from North Korea, which not only complains about the provocative nature of the war games, but also issues threats of destruction and retaliation.
But do drills such as the spring’s Key Resolve/Foal Eagle exercises and ongoing Ulchi Freedom Guardian really hurt the already-tense relationship between Washington and Pyongyang? Not really, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
The exercises have a “null effect” on diplomatic relations between the U.S. and North Korea, CSIS Korea Chair Victor Cha wrote in a paper released this week.
“They are not game changers,” he said.
A study of 10 years’ worth of exercises showed that the nature of the nations’ relationship before an exercise persisted after the drill, with positive relationships lasting “despite North Korean rhetoric to the contrary.”
“On the other hand, if the relationship was coded negatively prior to the exercises, the exercises tended to reinforce the negative relationship in terms of both rhetoric and possible provocations,” Cha said.
This year’s UFG computer command-and-control exercise started about two weeks after two South Korean soldiers were maimed along the Demilitarized Zone by land mines planted by North Korea. The Koreas have since resumed propaganda broadcasts across the border through loudspeakers.
Approximately 50,000 South Korean troops and 30,000 American servicemembers are taking part in UFG, which kicked off Monday and runs through Aug. 28. While the U.S. and South Korea have described the exercise as routine and defense-oriented, Pyongyang has threatened to respond with military force if the drill is not canceled.
The CSIS study, conducted in March, looked at Key Resolve/Foal Eagle exercises from 2005 to 2014. It found that Pyongyang could “compartmentalize” its reaction to the exercises and not let its anger over the drills affect positive inter-Korean relations, as in 2005 and 2006 when relations between the Koreas remained good.
Longer exercises give the North a larger window to retaliate, Cha said. Small-scale provocations during and after exercises increased after 2009, when spring drills increased in duration.
The UFG exercise should have little effect on Pyongyang relations, said Kim Jin Moo, a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul. North Korea views the Key Resolve/Foal Eagle exercises, in which field training takes place, as more of a threat than UFG.
“The North reacts angrily to the Key Resolve/Foal Eagle drills because it is insecure,” he said. “Also, they react strongly to show off Kim Jong Un’s skills as a young leader.”
Cha urged the two allies to “listen carefully” to the North during UFG.
“Pyongyang’s official rhetoric remains a good indicator of possible small-scale provocative actions during the exercise period,” he said. “Washington and Seoul would do well to listen carefully to Pyongyang’s rhetoric in the coming days for potential actions.”
Stars and Stripes’ Yoo Kyong Chang contributed to this report.