South Korea’s offer to the US for the postponement of their joint military exercises until after the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games -- on the condition of North Korea not conducting nuclear or missile tests during the games -- looks like a double-edged sword.
The North might meet the condition, but the offer is more likely to boomerang by creating false perceptions of the exercises and causing concern about South Korea leaning to China, away from its US alliance.
In an interview with NBC News on Tuesday, President Moon Jae-in said he had proposed to the US to put off the Korea-US joint military exercises to ease tension on the Korean Peninsula before the opening of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics.
Cheong Wa Dae has not received an answer yet from US military authorities, but the prospect of the US accepting it does not look dim. The Korea-US Combined Forces Command said it would announce a decision by the alliance at an appropriate time. However, it seems hasty of Moon to disclose the offer to the media before the conclusion of consultations with the US.
It is understandable that the Moon administration hopes to stage the Olympics successfully and peacefully. If Pyongyang is enticed by the offer and sends its athletes and officials to the Olympics, the likelihood of the games being held peacefully will rise. The North, even though it is a belligerent state, is not expected to escalate crisis on the peninsula while its athletes compete in the South. The offer complies with a UN resolution adopted last month urging every country to stop hostile activities for seven days before and after the Winter Olympics as well as during the games. The North’s participation could also initiate inter-Korean talks as Moon anticipates.
But this wishful scenario is based on a misguided and dangerous premise. Viewing the military exercises as an obstacle to the peaceful staging of the Olympics is risky.
The military exercises are normally conducted in March as defensive drills. The need to conduct the drills is all the greater considering North Korea’s nuclear missile program, which is forecast to be completed in February or March next year. Putting off defensive drills at such a critical time will endanger the Olympics.
The offer to postpone Korea-US joint military exercises is seen as following China’s solution to the North Korean nuclear issues. Beijing calls for South Korea and the US to suspend their joint military exercises and simultaneously for North Korea to suspend its nuclear and missile programs. Cheong Wa Dae denies the notion, saying it is not based on the Chinese solution, but it inevitably gives the impression that South Korea is being drawn to China.
The US has applied strong pressure on Pyongyang to choose between dialogue and forced denuclearization. Offering to delay military exercises in this situation is feared to dampen the pressure.
If the US accepts the offer, the ball will be in North Korea’s court. If it sends athletes and stops nuclear and missile tests temporarily, it would be the icing on the cake, but there are long odds.
Rather it is likely to use it to its advantage or conduct missile or nuclear tests, with South Korea and the US off their guard. The US refrained from deploying some strategic assets in the Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise in August to avoid provoking North Korea, but the North did not cease its missile launches.
There is the likelihood of North Korea using the Olympics as a chance to raise tension and up the ante in future negotiations. It will probably attempt local provocations or cyberterrorism to spoil the festive Olympic mood.
South Korea must not lower its guard, especially at a time when the security situation could become more volatile. It must work more closely with the US to stage a peaceful Olympics.