SEOUL — Defying North Korean anger, threats and missile tests, South Korean and U.S. forces launched more than a week of major new joint military drills Monday, the first full-scale exercises of their kind on the divided peninsula in six years.
The regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un signaled its displeasure with the test of land-based missiles on Friday and the launch of what Pyongyang dubbed two “strategic” cruise missiles Sunday, the first confirmed missiles fired from a North Korean submarine. Kim Yo-Jong, Mr. Kim’s powerful sister, has warned that Pyongyang could turn the Pacific “into a firing range.”
But the back-and-forth has also exposed what analysts here say is a widening divergence on the Korean peninsula: While Washington and Seoul move together militarily and economically, North Korea has a far more tenuous and uncertain relationship with China, its one critical ally and economic lifeline.
South Korean officials were unmoved by the North’s threats.
“We can never give up efforts to deter North Korea from preposterous provocations,” Prime Minister Han Duck-soo told foreign reporters. “We will continue our exercises and strengthen our deterrence, regardless of North Korea’s acts.”
Full-scale U.S.-South Korean military exercises were suspended as President Trump pursued a denuclearization deal with Mr. Kim that ultimately failed. South Korea’s then-President Moon Jae-in was also pursuing a policy of engagement with the North, while the COVID-19 global pandemic curtailed the joint exercises in 2021 and 2022.
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But despite Pyongyang’s fiery rhetoric and ever-improving nuclear and missile capabilities, analysts say the renewed allied drills are exposing new weaknesses and vulnerabilities in Mr. Kim’s strategic position.
Monday’s exercises, underwritten by joint command structures and a major U.S. troop presence that dates back to 1950, demonstrate that South Korea has a powerful ally with which it can coordinate.
By contrast, while Pyongyang has a mutual defense treaty with China, it has no working alliance with Beijing. No Chinese troops are based on the peninsula, nor do they drill with their North Korean counterparts.
Current events are also a source of unease for the North. Seoul and Washington dismiss Pyongyang’s insistence that their drills are “preparation” for an invasion, but Russia’s February 2022 incursion into Ukraine — conducted by forces who were also supposedly massed for war games — may be making the North highly jittery.
The bilateral drills customarily include a final counter-attack in the case of a military thrust from North Korea. That represents in itself a serious deterrent, making any North Korean attack a potentially existential risk to Mr. Kim’s own regime.
The unspoken threat
The full-scale exercises are re-starting under conservative South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol for the first time since 2017. Mr. Yoon has largely dropped any effort to engage the North while bolstering ties with the U.S. and even moving to repair fraught relations with Washington’s other key East Asian ally, Japan.
Mr. Han brushed aside North Korea’s complaints, saying the joint exercises are needed to keep the U.S. and South Korean forces operating efficiently together.
“Without exercises, it is impossible to retain adequate levels of deterrence,” the prime minister said. “That was a mistake of the last five years.”
Though North Korea possesses a credible nuclear deterrent, multiple conflicts since 1945 – from Vietnam to Russia’s Ukraine campaign – have demonstrated that atomic capability does not guarantee military victory. Conventional forces, the government says, still matter.
The joint drills include 11 days of computer-simulated “Freedom Shield” drills and various boots-on-the-ground “Warrior Shield” components. A U.S. carrier strike group is expected to exercise off the peninsula, according to local media, and Ssangyong (“Double Dragon”) drills will involve South Korean, U.S. and possibly British marines.
Though “Warrior Shield,” is more photogenic, “Freedom Shield,” held in locked-down command posts, or CPs, may be more crucial.
“The CP exercise is the important one as that keeps the commanders trained,” said Steve Tharp, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who joined the exercises for 26 years. “You can do tactical exercises anywhere.”
The drills have three components: Deterrence, defense and counterattack. For North Korean war planners, that raises questions of where a U.S.-South Korean counterattack would originate and how far the allies would go once mobilized and deployed.
Details are secret. But there are widespread assumptions that the planning includes marine landings north of the heavily armed DMZ.
“I can’t comment on classified war plans, but we are not going to let land get taken and not be recovered,” Mr. Tharp said. “Beyond that, it is a political decision to be taken by the governments at the time.”
The strategic ambiguity clouding the counterattack phase represents an unknowable threat to Pyongyang.
“It maximizes the deterrent effect by raising the stakes for the North Koreans,” said Go Myong-hyun, a research fellow at Seoul’s Asan Institute. “They have to take into consideration that, if they get this ball rolling, it will not stop until someone is eliminated – and chances are, it would be them.”
That provides a comfort for historically vulnerable Seoul, South Korea’s gleaming capital, which is located just 30 miles south of the DMZ.
“There is no real strategic buffer for South Korea,” said Mr. Go. “So to create a buffer – an imaginary buffer – you do it by increasing the downside for the North Koreans.”
The drills also expose another unpleasant fact for defiant, but lonely, North Korea – its lack of allies.
The friendless North
After North Korea’s June 1950 invasion of the South was reversed by the intervention of U.S. and other allied troops, China entered the Korean War in October 1950 as American forces approached its border.
An uneasy armistice was signed in 1953 and that same year Seoul and Washington agreed a mutual defense treaty. The U.S. has maintained GIs in South Korea ever since.
By contrast, Beijing signed the “Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty” with Pyongyang in 1961 – after withdrawing its troops permanently from North Korea three years earlier.
Today, U.S. and South Korean strategists says China does not want North Korea to collapse, which would likely mean troops from democratic South Korea and the U.S. posted on its strategic northeastern frontier. Despite international sanctions, Beijing continues to channel fuel, food and medical aid to the North.
But relations are hardly amicable. There are long-held suspicions within the Kim regime toward any pro-Chinese groups that surface in Pyongyang, and its army bristles at the memory of its wartime subordination to Beijing.
“During the war, they made a combined forces command, but the Chinese called all the shots,” said Mr. Tharp. “Even during negotiations, orders were coming from Beijing.”
Despite the 1961 treaty, there are no China-North Korea drills. Given the complexities of modern warfare – ranging from integrating radio communications and electronic weapons systems to coordinating tactical aims and overcoming linguistic challenges – their forces would face extreme difficulty cooperating in a crisis.
“The Chinese struggle to maintain very basic lines of communication with the Korean Peoples’ Army, which is as suspicious of its Chinese counterpart as it is of its enemies east and south,” said Christopher Green, senior consultant for the Korean Peninsula at the International Crisis Group. “Accordingly, in a contingency, China would have little choice but to operate with a very one-sided command structure.”
Another issue is the nature of the two regimes united by the 1961 treaty.
“In any kind of alliance or security commitment, there is tension over fears or abandonment or entrapment, and authoritarian regimes are more transactional,” said Daniel Pinkston, an international relations expert at Troy University. “Not even the most powerful person can make credible commitments, as they can renege on them.”