SEOUL — In 2022, North Korea upped the stakes in the standoff on the Korean peninsula with its largest number of missile tests ever. In 2023, South Korea is returning fire as it expands exercises with the United States.
The schedule of drills released by South Korea’s defense ministry Wednesday far outpaces those of recent years in both scope and sophistication, at a time when the war of nerves on the peninsula has largely devolved into a “missile test vs joint exercise” competition.
But with Seoul’s new schedule come new risks.
On December 26, the North found a weak point in the South’s defenses: Five drones entered southern skies and South Korea’s military was deeply embarrassed by its failures to down any. President Yoon Suk Yeol responded forcefully.
In an “armistice-be-damned” approach, Mr. Yoon ordered his forces to send two or three drones over the dividing Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in North Korea for every drone Pyongyang sends to the south. Earlier this month, Mr. Yoon raised the possibility of U.S. forces drilling with nuclear arms in South Korea, something President Joe Biden appeared to deny.
Following that communication snafu, Seoul Wednesday announced its military schedule for 2023, the Yonhap News Agency reported. It looks to be a busy year. The increased tempo includes a deputy defense minister-level table-top exercise, set for Washington in February, that will wargame how the two allies would respond to North Korea’s use of a nuclear weapon.
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“Freedom Shield” joint field drills set for this spring will take place uninterrupted over 11 days — reportedly, the longest ever. The drills, which rotate U.S. assets into the peninsula to beef up the approximately 28,000-strong permanent U.S. troop deployment, have long been a source of sharp contention with Pyongyang.
The regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, influenced by Soviet and Russian doctrine, angrily charges that the joint maneuvers — which include counterattack as well as defensive segments — are a rehearsal for an invasion. President Trump for a while suspended the joint training exercises while pursuing his ultimately unproductive personal diplomacy with Mr. Kim in 2018 and 2019.
Even after the collapse of the Trump-Kim rapprochement in 2019, many exercises remained on hold amid the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Only after the conservative Mr. Yoon took power in Seoul in May was the pace of exercises fully restored.
In addition to Freedom Shield, Seoul and Washington have laid out plans to conduct 20 field exercises in the first half of the year alone. Notably, “Double Dragon” amphibious drills will be upgraded from brigade to division strength.
Seoul also plans tests this year of solid-fuel space-launch vehicles, technology that could also apply to ballistic missiles. Solid-fuel projectiles are less vulnerable than liquid-propellant missiles: They don’t need to be erected and fueled prior to launch.
Seoul also plans to send its first native spy satellite aloft this year, with the aim of having five in orbit by the middle of the decade, a move also likely to provoke Pyongyang. NATO and U.S. commercial satellites have been critical in delivering battlefield intelligence to Ukraine in its war with Russia, enabling the use of network-centric, high-precision weapons.
In yet another first, a joint U.S.-South Korea space drill will also take place this year. Last month, the U.S. Space Force created a new command within the U.S. Forces Korea structure. South Korea’s military also plans to acquire new anti-drone defensive systems.
North Korea’s heavy slate of ballistic and cruise missile tests last year has many Pyongyangologists fearing that a new nuclear weapons test could be in the works, possibly an atmospheric detonation of a small-yield, “tactical” device. It would be the first nuclear test for the Kim regime since 2017.
Not everyone is comfortable with Mr. Yoon’s more aggressive schedule.
“There is concern among some … who feel that Yoon wants to come out strong to make up for his low [popularity] ratings,” said Go Myong-hyun, an analyst at Seoul’s Asian Institute.
However, Mr. Go himself considers the joint drills — including a U.S. nuclear component — to be a necessary response to North Korea.
Seoul’s ramped-up activities in 2023 “are required to reassure the public when it comes to uncertainty about the U.S. commitment to the defense of South Korea,” Go said. “Many in the South may not agree, but not holding exercises also causes uncertainty and anxiety.”
David Park, a retired U.S. Army major who served in Korea, said Mr. Yoon and General Kim Seung-kyum, chairman of the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff, are taking the right approach, despite the menacing rhetoric out of North Korea.
Gen. Kim, Mr. Park said, “is not a loose cannon.”