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The North Korea Threat Is Growing. U.S.-South Korea Military Training Must Press Forward.

North Korea Artillery
Image: KCNA.

Following the successful Joe Biden-Moon Jae-in summit on May 21, 2021, the Moon administration began backsliding on alliance commitments to military readiness. Specifically, President Moon said COVID-19 will likely make it difficult to conduct the annual ROK/U.S. Combined Forces Command (ROK/U.S. CFC) training in August. Moon likely has the naïve hope that forgoing this exercise will serve as a goodwill gesture to Pyongyang, helping to restart diplomacy with North Korea, yet this is unlikely. In fact, cancelling the annual training will further endanger South Korea.

U.S.-ROK Annual Training Is Vital 

The alliance has been conducting annual training in August under the names Ulchi Focus LensUlchi Freedom Guardian, and now Dong Maeng for the past 40+ years. Despite the various names, these exercises served the specific purpose of ensuring readiness following the routine summer changeover of ROK and U.S. personnel at the ROK/U.S. CFC and its subordinate component headquarters (air, ground, naval, Marine, and special operations). The alliance conducts Combined Command Post Training using computer simulation to train on the various scenarios the North Korean People’s Army will use to attack the South. This exercise also establishes the foundational readiness for the combined forces, which is essential for theater-level and component headquarters to execute defense plans.

Although it is not necessary to conduct field training as part of this exercise, in the past, there have been field training exercises conducted simultaneously but separately from command post training. Both militaries conduct multi-echelon training all year round and tactical training (live fire and maneuver training – in the air, on land, and at sea) takes place routinely and not just during major exercises.

A Long Pause

Following the Singapore summit, then-President Trump unilaterally announced the cancellation of Ulchi Freedom Guardian in August 2018. For the next two-plus years training was cancelled, postponed, or scaled back by adjusting General Abrams’s “four dials:” size, scope, volume, and timing, in order to support diplomacy. However, during that time Kim Jong-un demonstrated no intent to negotiate with the U.S in good faith or restart North-South engagement.

Therefore, it is a fantasy to believe that using the exercises as a bargaining chip can entice Kim back to the negotiating table. Kim’s political warfare strategy and blackmail diplomacy simply exploit such concessions to meet regime objectives: e.g., to split the ROK/U.S. alliance, weaken its combined military forces and drive U.S. forces off the peninsula because they can no longer train and maintain combat readiness.

President Moon made his post-summit statements regarding the difficulty of conducting the exercise due to COVID 19 after President Biden authorized 550,000 vaccinations for ROK military personnel. It is possible the alliance could vaccinate all exercise participants prior to the August training. Furthermore, the ROK/U.S. CFC has conducted two major exercises, Dong Maeng 20-1 and 21-1 during the COVID era with no reported COVID cases. It apparently has been able to implement effective mitigation and force protection measures.

The Moon administration should be cautious about using ROK/U.S. combined training to bargain with North Korea in the press. The Minister of Foreign Affairs said there is no link between the vaccine and the August training. This means the Biden administration is not offering the vaccines in return for a ROK commitment to conduct training. However, the Moon administration’s statements suggest that it is willing to put ROK national security, the U.S.-ROK alliance, and the wartime  OPCON transition process all at risk solely in return for the false hope that training concessions will bring Kim Jong-un to the negotiating table and agree to North-South engagement.  Again, this is a fantasy and illustrates that the strategic assumptions upon which the Moon administration bases its policy and strategy are wrong.

A Timely Announcement or a Ruse? 

The Moon administration will likely bolster its argument with an announcement that the Kim regime no longer intends to pursue unification through a revolution in South Korea. Pyongyang’s omission of this concept in the new party rules document and its shift from military-first politics to a so-called focus on the people is excellent political warfare. It is creating a perception of a change in the behavior and outlook of the regime that supports the misguided belief that the Kim family regime seeks to negotiate in good faith and act as a responsible member of the international community.

Hwasong-16 ICBM

What appears to be a new Hwasong-16 ICBM.

Pro-engagement pundits in Seoul and Washington will interpret this announcement as Pyongyang indicating it wants to negotiate. Such commentary indicates their support for Moon’s peace agenda and the desire for the Biden administration to support it. However, this actually helps to drive a wedge in the alliance. They argue Kim Jong-un supports Moon’s vision of peace and reconciliation while the Biden administration holds the realistic view of the existential threat the regime poses to South Korea and its global threats due to its nuclear weapons and missiles, cyber capabilities, proliferation, and its worldwide illicit activities.

Pyongyang’s recent announcement may be designed to make the Biden administration policy dead on arrival. It has the potential to take away ROK support for the new policy by giving the appearance the regime has given up its revolutionary unification objective and strategy.

Yet, until Pyongyang demonstrates the sincerity that would confirm it truly has abandoned its revolutionary unification plans, it is dangerous to blindly accept this announcement as valid because the DPRK continues to be an existential threat to the South. It still possesses the fourth largest army in the world, which is postured for offensive operations.  The citizens of Seoul live in the shadow of artillery and rockets that can bring terrible devastation and suffering upon them. The regime possesses a full range of weapons of mass destruction that supports not only its blackmail diplomacy but will be used as force multipliers to try to defeat the ROK and U.S. militaries should Kim order an attack.

North Korea Provocation

North Korean ICBMs, October 10, 2020. Image: KCNA (Screenshot).

The ink is hardly dry on the Biden administration’s new Korea policy and the Moon administration and Kim Jong-un appear to be trying to undermine it. One of the key elements of the policy is maintaining a strong alliance deterrence and defense capability to protect South Korea from attack.  Training is perishable. If the forces at each level do not train sufficiently their ability to successfully defend the South quickly atrophies. The ROK/U.S. alliance cannot labor under erroneous and unproven assumptions about the regime’s intent. For more than two years the alliance has cancelled, postponed, and scaled back exercises with nothing in return from the north. To continue to reduce training will put the people of South Korea and U.S strategic interests at great risk.  The ROK/U.S. Combined Forces Command must continue to train.

David Maxwell, a thirty-year veteran of the United States Army and retired Special Forces colonel, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from David and CMPP. Follow David on Twitter @davidmaxwell161. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. 

Written By

David Maxwell, a 1945 Contributing Editor, is a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel who has spent more than 30 years in Asia and specializes in North Korea and East Asia Security Affairs and irregular, unconventional, and political warfare. He is the Vice President of the Center for Asia Pacific Strategy and the editor of Small Wars Journal. He is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation of Defense of Democracies and the Global Peace Foundation (where he focuses on a free and unified Korea).