The tension between the US and North Korea that had raised the specter of war on the peninsula has eased off as both sides refrain from threats of military strikes against each other.
There have been many signs of a lull in the crisis recently, including comments from North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump who had previously exchanged bellicose tit-for-tat rhetoric that many thought would portend military conflict between the two countries.
Kim, who had ordered the preparation of an “enveloping strike” at the waters off Guam with missiles by mid-August, said last week he would watch what the Americans do a little more. If that was not a call for a truce, it was certainly backing off.
Trump, whose “fire and fury” and “locked and loaded” responses to Kim’s threat against Guam further heightened the danger of war, embraced Kim’s gesture promptly, saying that Kim made a “very wise and well-reasoned decision.” The alternative would have been both catastrophic and unacceptable, Trump said.
Senior US officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, followed up on Trump’s softened stance by indicating that Washington was ready to resolve the crisis through diplomatic negotiation.
President Moon Jae-in contributed to the mood as he said he would prevent war on the peninsula by all means. He said that nobody could take military action on the peninsula without the consent of the South Korean government and that Trump also understood and agreed with that.
Critics pointed out that Moon’s comments could relieve the North of the fear of a pre-emptive strike by the US, depriving the allies of an effective means of deterrence. Nevertheless, they helped to suppress the possibility of war and ease off the crisis sparked by the North’s test of two intercontinental ballistic missiles in July.
With the crisis at a crossroads, the annual South Korea-US joint military exercise which kicked off Monday could determine the future course of events. The key, of course, would be whether North Korea makes a new provocation or not.
Unlike the spring joint drills, the Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise that will run through Aug. 31 is mainly a computerized command post exercise. But Pyongyang had accused the war game of being a rehearsal for the allies’ invasion of the North and it often responded with hostile acts.
Last year, the North test-fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile two days after the start of the Ulchi Freedom Guardian drills, which was soon followed by a fifth nuclear test on the Sept. 9 anniversary of the establishment of the government. In 2015, the North fired an artillery shell over the border during the Ulchi drills.
This calls on the allies to be more vigilant than in the past. On Sunday, North Korea’s official media blasted the exercise as “the most explicit expression of hostility against us” and an act of “adding fuel to the fire.”
In its nature, the Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise is a defensive one, and this time the allies seemed to have considered the recent tension that had sparked fears of war. The North should take note of that.
South Korean and US officials deny the speculation that the allies took care not to provoke the North by maintaining the scale of this year’s exercise at the same level as last year. But they could have expanded the size and scale of the drill easily if they had wished to do so.
To the contrary, the number of American troops participating in this year’s drills dropped to 17,500 from last year’s 25,000. Officials including US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said plans are usually made well before and that the number of participating US servicemen has nothing to do with the current crisis. They also note that the lion’s share of the US forces come from those stationed in South Korea and that the number of soldiers coming from outside of Korea increased to 3,000 from 2,500 last year.
Nevertheless, it is apparent that the allies want to make the drills low-profile ones. North Korea should take that as a sincere effort and refrain from making any provocations that would force the allies back to a more hardline stance.