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[Editorial] Undue consideration

Don’t hollow out South Korea-US drills to appease North Korea

Seoul appears to be moving to reduce the scale and duration of the South Korea-US joint military exercise set to kick off next week.

The regular summertime exercise, along with other major annual combined drills between the allies, has taken the form of computer-simulated war games since 2018, with no outdoor field training.

Further scaling it down and cutting it short may well raise concerns that it is a matter of time before the allies’ joint military exercises are reduced to a skeleton, undermining the foundation of the Seoul-Washington alliance.

The measure comes amid widening discord here over whether to conduct the drill as planned.

More than 70 lawmakers from the liberal ruling Democratic Party of Korea and minor progressive parties have signed a statement calling for the postponement of the exercise to help forge an environment conducive to the resumption of inter-Korean dialogue.

Park Jie-won, head of the nation’s top intelligence agency, apparently threw his weight behind the call when he told a parliamentary committee last week that there was a need to flexibly handle the matter for the sake of the broader cause of denuclearizing North Korea. He added that Pyongyang might respond with a provocative act if the allies push ahead with their combined exercise.

Rep. Song Young-gil, chairman of the ruling party, has taken the same stance as conservative opposition lawmakers: that the military exercise should go ahead as scheduled. He said Thursday that it was not right to postpone a drill that was already prepared.

The call to delay the exercise was prompted by a warning from Pyongyang that it would cloud the future of inter-Korean relations.

Kim Yo-jong, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s influential sister, gave the warning in a statement issued days after the North reopened cross-border communication lines July 27. The reclusive state unilaterally severed them in June last year in anger over anti-Pyongyang leaflets sent across the border from the South into the North.

Initially, the North was presumed to have agreed to restore the communication channels as a step toward resolving its food shortages and economic difficulties, which the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated.

But its subsequent move suggests Pyongyang might also be attempting to cause discord in the South and drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington. The call to put off the military drill fits into the North’s calculations.

Washington appears to have given its reluctant consent to scale down the combined exercise with Seoul, as US officials have said any decision on the matter would be made through close coordination between the allies. But it seems that concerns are growing in the US that President Moon Jae-in’s administration is playing into the hands of Pyongyang.

What provides the maneuvering room for the North is Moon’s aspirations to carry forward his inter-Korean peace agenda even at the risk of ignoring nuclear threats from the North and falling out of step with the US in keeping pressure on the recalcitrant regime.

Moon seems to hope that he will hold yet another summit with Kim before he leaves office in May and restore the reconciliatory mood forged between the two Koreas through three such meetings in 2018.

In a meeting with Defense Minister Suh Wook and other top military commanders last week, Moon instructed them to consult with the US on the planned joint drill “with prudence in consideration of various elements.” This vague instruction invited criticism that he had shunned his responsibility to make a resolute decision as commander in chief.

There is also speculation that the Moon government has sought understanding from Pyongyang on the need to conduct the summertime joint drill to prepare for the transfer of the wartime operational control of South Korean troops to Seoul from Washington. Such a move would only put Seoul in a more complicated position, as the US is likely to defer its judgment on Seoul’s preparedness for the conditions-based transition in the absence of full-fledged exercises involving the deployment of troops and equipment in the field.

The Moon administration is expected to push for assistance to the North unless the impoverished state responds to the allies’ joint drill with provocative acts. Again, it is unsure that Washington will agree to ease sanctions when the North continues to pursue its nuclear arms and ballistic missile development programs.

By Korea Herald (koreaherald@heraldcorp.com)
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