Major Gen. Urs Gerber, the Swiss delegation head of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission at Panmunjom truce village, told reporters that the NNSC has not always reached a decision that the drills are exclusively designed for defensive purposes against North Korea.
“In the past, sometimes it has not been deterrent, and quite often we come to the conclusion that we have not enough evidence to give a conclusion,” he said. “What we certainly do not do is to follow mainstream and say, ‘OK, you are nice guys. Hence, it’s okay.’”
The standoff between the two Koreas has been escalating in recent months in light of Pyongyang’s Jan. 6 nuclear testing and Feb. 7 long-range rocket test, resulting in the U.N. Security Council slapping it with the strongest economic sanctions to date.
North Korea has claimed that the annual drills are the main source of inter-Korea tensions and that its nuclear program is a mere means of self-defense.
The Allies conduct joint military drills each year as a countermeasure against the North, namely the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercise from March to April and the Ulchi-Freedom Guardian held around August. South Korea’s Defense Ministry said that this year’s KR and FE drills have been the largest ever in terms of size and military assets deployed.
In April, North Korea said that it is ready to give up nuclear testing if the allies discontinue the drills.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry said there is no reason to cease the drills, as it is a legitimate drill that is solely for the purpose of defense.
As one of the NNSC’s function is to ensure that the joint drills stay on the defensive end, its latest remarks are expected to spark some backlash, particularly from belligerent Pyongyang.
Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean Studies at Dongguk University, said it put the Unification Ministry’s explanation on the legitimacy of the drills in a new light, provided the comment itself checks out.
“North Korea is now likely to use the accusation (of the drills not always being defensive) as a weapon to verbally attack the allies and question the U.N. Command’s actions,” he said, adding that the North may also say that its claims of the drills being a threat have been correct.
Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute, pointed out that the content of the joint drills has been progressively becoming more aggressive since the previous Lee Myung-bak administration and as tension with the North soared. This year’s drill included a direct strike on the North’s leadership.
“The very nature of the drills themselves will become a hotly contest issue between the Koreas and the U.S. in the years to come,” he said.
Gerber also revealed that South Korea, U.S. and the neutral observer states had all reached different conclusions upon investigating North Korea’s shelling attack on the Souths’ western front in August, 2015.
The incident had sparked exchange of fire between the Koreas, after which Seoul’s military issued its highest “Jindogae 1” alert status. No casualties occurred.
“That’s one of the cases where we did not come, completely, to the same conclusion. There were basically three different conclusions. The South Korean conclusion, U.S.’, and NNSC’s,” Gerber said.
He explained that in many occasions, the difference in the parties’ reports is rooted in the lack of access to parts of investigation. “Because everything we (the NNSC) do is based on invitation only,” he said.
While South Korean military has firmly stated that the North’s first strike was responsible for the incident, its refusal to reveal evidence related to the incident had caused speculation regarding Seoul’s initial report.
Gerber did not elaborate on the specifics of the report.
By Yoon Min-sik (firstname.lastname@example.org)