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[Editorial] Joint posture

Allies’ combined drills should not be affected by Seoul’s readiness to pander to Pyongyang

South Korea and the US have not yet announced exactly when and how they would be conducting their joint military exercise planned for this month.

The allies’ combined springtime drill is expected to kick off in the second week of March for about a 10-day run. But Seoul’s Defense Ministry said Thursday the schedule and other details of the planned exercise had yet to be finalized. A ministry spokesperson said South Korea and the US were holding close discussions on them taking into consideration the coronavirus pandemic situation and other circumstances.

What is holding back the allies from fixing the joint exercise plan seems to be South Korea’s nonsensical wish to conduct the drill in a way to avoid irking North Korea. This stance, which is in line with President Moon Jae-in’s preoccupation with inter-Korean reconciliation, is apparently out of step with Washington’s hope to strengthen the joint defense posture with Seoul against what it sees as a serious threat from Pyongyang.

In a news conference in January, Moon said Seoul may consult with Pyongyang on the South Korea-US combined exercise in advance if necessary. His top national security adviser, Suh Hoon, told lawmakers last week that the upcoming drill would be held in a scaled-back manner, involving no troops and equipment on the field, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Seoul’s passive stance seems to have been affected more by Pyongyang’s objection to the exercise than concerns about the pandemic situation.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said in the communist state’s ruling Workers’ Party Congress in January that Pyongyang would link inter-Korean dialogue and reconciliation to joint exercises between the South and the US. He argued military drills by the allies represent their hostility toward his totalitarian state, while Seoul and Washington have said they are defensive in nature.

A group of 35 lawmakers from the ruling Democratic Party of Korea and its minor satellite party last week issued a statement calling for the postponement of the planned joint military drill. Their statement particularly noted that Kim had come forward to oppose it.

Officials in the Moon administration and politicians sympathetic with the North have expressed concerns that the allies’ combined drill would prompt Pyongyang to react with a military provocation.

What they have ignored is that Kim repeatedly pledged to advance his regime’s nuclear arsenal in his report to January’s party congress, which was followed by a military parade featuring a range of upgraded weapons designed to strike targets in the South.

Major combined exercises between South Korea and the US have been suspended since then-US President Donald Trump held his first summit with Kim in Singapore in 2018. Other smaller-scale drills by the allies have also been conducted in the form of computer-simulated war games especially in the aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak here early last year.

New US President Joe Biden’s administration apparently wants to reinforce combined military drills with South Korea to counter a threat posed by North Korea’s continued development of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction. A US Defense Department spokesperson said Friday Washington would continue to maintain and develop the allies’ joint defense capabilities to deter negative behavior from the North and defend their interests on the peninsula.

It is simply absurd to postpone a military exercise because of an objection raised by a foe. A military cannot be called so without conducting exercises. Joint military drills also constitute a key pillar of any alliance.

The Moon administration should not let national security be undermined by its blind pursuit of reconciliation with the North based on wishful thinking about the intentions of the nuclear-armed recalcitrant regime.

South Korean military leaders suggest a delay would not affect the country’s defense readiness posture. Their position seems all the more irresponsible, given that a string of undetected defections by North Koreans across the border in recent years has exposed alarmingly loose discipline among South Korea’s armed forces.

Contradicting Seoul’s lukewarm stance on the allies’ joint drills is its push to retake the wartime operational control of its troops from the US before Moon ends his five-year tenure in May 2022. It seeks to carry out a full operational capability test, a crucial step for the envisioned transition, during the planned joint exercise. But a computer-simulated command post training, as suggested by Seoul, would be far from sufficient to prove the South Korean military’s enhanced capabilities.