President Moon Jae-in’s administration is facing a dilemma over the implementation of South Korea-US joint military exercises, particularly one scheduled for this spring.
This self-caused dilemma stems from its incompatible wishes to avoid irking North Korea and to retake wartime operational control of South Korean troops from the US.
Moon and his aides, preoccupied with their peace agenda for the peninsula, worry that going ahead with the planned drill could give the North a pretext to make provocations in a bid to put pressure on US President Joe Biden’s administration.
Key officials in the Biden administration have signaled changes in Washington’s approach to Pyongyang, departing from former US President Donald Trump’s top-down manner of dealing with the recalcitrant regime, which they say was counterproductive in achieving the goal of dismantling its nuclear arsenal.
A flare-up in tensions with the North is what the Moon government wants to avoid at any cost.
In his New Year’s address, Moon vowed renewed efforts to revive the stalled denuclearization talks between the US and the North and to thaw the frozen inter-Korean ties in the remainder of his five-year tenure, which ends in May 2022.
In a reflection of his eagerness to prevent his reconciliatory effort from being derailed, Moon said in a news conference last month that, if necessary, Seoul and Pyongyang could discuss joint drills between South Korea and the US.
Apparently weighing on him was North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s repeated calls for an end to the joint exercises between the allies, which he argued run counter to a string of accords between the two Koreas.
If the Moon administration accepted Kim’s demand, it would have to discard the plan to regain the wartime OPCON from the US within Moon’s term, as Moon pledged during his election campaign.
South Korea and the US remain behind schedule in implementing a series of tests that are required for the transition.
The allies, which conducted an initial operational capability test in 2019, failed to move on to a full operational capability test last year, as they were compelled to reduce their planned joint exercises due to the coronavirus pandemic. The full operational capability test should be followed by a full mission capability test.
With the second- and final-stage tests unable to be held in the same year, the cancellation of the joint exercise scheduled for this spring would make it impossible to complete the process before Moon leaves office.
The allies’ combined exercises have been scaled down or called off since the first summit between Trump and Kim in Singapore in June 2018. Most of their scaled-down drills have been reduced to computer-simulated war games to further help forge an atmosphere conducive to denuclearization talks with the North and as a precaution against the COVID-19 pandemic.
South Korea’s Defense Minister Suh Wook said last week that the annual springtime exercise with the US would go ahead as planned, but would take the form of a computer simulation focused on defensive operations. He added that discussions with the North could be held with regard to the planned drill.
This equivocal approach seems neither to placate the North nor to ensure the completion of the second-stage test for the wartime OPCON transfer.
The Biden administration is poised to strengthen combined military exercises with South Korea, which Trump regarded largely as a waste of money.
“We recognize the value of training and exercises to keep forces ready,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said last week, adding that nowhere was this more important than on the Korean Peninsula. “Ready to fight tonight is not just a slogan,” he said.
Another official at the US Defense Department made it clear that the envisioned transition of the wartime OPCON would take place when all necessary conditions were met, not because of the simple passage of time.
The prolonged absence of a full-scale field exercise involving South Korean and US troops and equipment have deepened concerns about the allies’ readiness against the North’s ever-evolving military capabilities. Pyongyang’s recent display of a range of upgraded strategic and conventional weapons has made it senseless for Seoul and Washington to keep reducing or canceling their combined exercises.
The Moon government should set aside political considerations and should focus on strengthening the country’s security posture when making decisions regarding joint drills with Washington. In the long term, this position will prove more instrumental in getting Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table and bringing about lasting peace on the peninsula.