South Korea and the United States on Monday kicked off their springtime combined military exercise in a scaled-back manner, the Joint Chiefs of Staff said.
It is a computer-simulated training without field maneuvers. Furthermore, it involves a “minimum level of troops” compared with previous exercises.
The two allies have not conducted their combined training normally since the summer of 2018. Without outdoor drills, troops carried out simulation training on computer monitors.
Some retired military officers and experts are concerned about the prolonged absence of field maneuver training. They complain that the failure to conduct joint training in the field could erode capabilities. It is questionable if the combined forces can display a fighting capability effectively in an actual situation that will involve complex, unexpected scenarios. There are concerns that their combat readiness is becoming chronically weak.
The downscaling of the combined training is largely attributable to the South Korean government trying to curry favor with North Korea.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un demanded the suspension of South Korea-US combined exercises in the Workers’ Party Congress in January. Then, President Moon Jae-in said in his New Year press conference that his government was willing to discuss the combined exercises with Pyongyang if needed. Thirty five lawmakers of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea called for the postponement of the March training, citing the North’s opposition.
The South Korea-US combined training is key to their alliance and South Korea’s national security, among other things. Moon and his party effectively treat the training as a bargaining chip.
No country would be willing to discuss its military training with its enemy or postpone it for a reason that its enemy opposes it. This is far from normal.
Anybody can understand why South Korea and the US should conduct their combined training properly.
North Korea is obviously nuclear armed. In the party congress in January, Kim emphasized nuclear weapons 36 times and mentioned unifying Korea by force.
South Korea has no ability yet to fend off North Korea’s missile attacks on its own. The only way for the South to counter the North’s threats is to strengthen its defense capability jointly with the US military.
Just because the government seeks to resolve the North’s threats through dialogue or measures to gain its favor should not mean that its defense capability should be sacrificed.
North Korea refuses dialogue and keeps strengthening its military. In these circumstances, the South ought to keep up a strong defense. It is risky to weaken its defense as the North wants.
South Korea and the US reportedly reached an agreement on Seoul’s share of the burden in maintaining US troops on the Korean Peninsula.
Washington sealed negotiations with Seoul quickly, only 46 days after the launch of the Biden administration. The negotiations had been stalled for more than a year ever since they began in September 2019, as the Trump administration reportedly demanded more than a fivefold increase.
The rapid conclusion of negotiations reflects the Biden administration’s commitment to reinvigorating and modernizing the US-South Korea alliance.
Scaling down the South Korea-US combined training goes against the commitment. It is important to station allied troops but more important is to keep them strong.
US interest in the combined exercises with South Korea is fading as they are conducted perfunctorily. As a result, Japan’s role in the security of Northeast Asia is growing, while Korea’s is shrinking.
The minimal South Korea-US combined training will only benefit North Korean leader Kim and endanger South Korea.
And yet, the Moon government seeks to expedite the takeover of wartime operational control from the US. It seems to believe it can defeat the North for itself once it can control operations on its own. Wartime operations are an issue directly related to the survival of the nation when a war breaks out. It is suicidal to follow an illusion or a wishful thinking when it comes to security.
Seoul must take the rapid conclusion of defense cost-sharing negotiations as an opportunity to restore the US alliance, which is abnormal now. It is urgent to normalize Korea-US combined exercises.