Is There Still Time for Diplomacy With North Korea?

North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un looks on during the test-fire of inter-continental ballistic missile Hwasong-14 in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang, July, 4 2017. KCNA/via REUTERS

Could diplomacy stave off a military showdown?

While many American pundits think this proposal is unacceptable, arguing that it would undermine the conventional defense of the peninsula, in fact, the United States and South Korea have suspended joint exercises in the past in return for steps by North Korea on the nuclear front. From 1991–96 the large Team Spirit exercise became both a carrot and a stick during U.S. negotiations with North Korea over its burgeoning nuclear program. This exercise was canceled in 1992, carried out again in 1993, and planned—but not executed—from 1994–96 as a result of negotiations that led to the 1994 U.S.-DPRK Agreed Framework. Changing the program did not undermine our ability to mount an effective conventional defense.

Since war is not a game, the practice, that is the exercises, become all that more important and necessary. But not all exercises are the same in importance and contribute the same in war-making capability. Further, time spent conducting military exercises does not have to be lengthy or complicated to achieve the necessary training objectives.

Certain parameters exist for all Korean exercises, which if met, will provide excellent war-fighting training. The most important alliance exercise training objectives revolve around command and control, at varying levels of operation, involving actions such as decision-making, information flow, and supervision of subordinate units, particularly within multi-national and combined commands. It is imperative that these exercises stress the alliance commands at all levels and its ability to react to changing operational circumstances.

These type of exercises do not have to be conducted on a large-scale or perhaps even in South Korea. Today, the number of personnel participating in exercises can be much smaller, principally because they are normally command post exercises rather than field training exercises—and they consist primarily of headquarters leadership and staffs at the joint and combined level and the immediate subordinate headquarters.

Such exercises would achieve their primary purposes: strengthening command and staff capabilities to exercise and improve multinational command and control; attaining more seamless coordination among staffs and between commands; and validating and improving the execution of operational plans.

Given these alliance objectives, it is entirely possible for the United States and South Korea to discontinue its two largest exercises—Key Resolve and Ulchi-Freedom Guardian—and work to achieve these important objectives through an alternative program along the following lines.

First, conduct a low profile, computer-assisted combined command post exercise at the operational level that would be similar to the Key Resolve exercise but without the high profile publicity and without substantial U.S. or South Korean forces involved. The exercise would focus on operational command and control over South Korean and U.S. subordinate headquarters and staff procedures.

Second, conduct series of unilateral and combined strategic table-top exercises at the South Korea and U.S. national levels with focus on high level decisionmaking. There need be no publicity and certainly no large-scale forces.

Third, discontinue the Ulchi-Freedom Guardian exercise that meshes a South Korea government exercise with a Combined Forces Command post exercise. U.S. senior officers would only observe the South Korean government exercise.

Fourth, conduct operational level naval and air exercises, such as the Foal Eagle exercise, separately and over-the-horizon.

Fifth, conduct ground exercises by South Korean and U.S. forces at division level and below. Exercises could include combined-training exercises or separate South Korea and U.S. ground-force exercises.

Maintaining North Korea’s healthy respect for the combined force posture of the United States and South Korea on the peninsula is an essential objective that all can agree to. Even better, if that objective can be achieved while also securing a moratorium on North Korean missile and nuclear tests, possibly opening a path to negotiations on solving the security challenge facing all of us, then it’s a risk worth taking.

Joel Wit is concurrently a senior fellow at the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS and a Senior Research Fellow at Columbia University Weatherhead Institute for East Asian Studies. He worked for fifteen years in the U.S. Department of State on arms control and non-proliferation issues. From 1995–2001 he was the Coordinator for Implementation of the U.S.-North Korea Agreed Framework. After leaving the State Department, he was a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Wit is the coauthor of "Going Critical: The First North Korean Nuclear Crisis," published by the Brookings Institute Press in 2004. He has also written numerous journal and newspaper articles on North Korea as well as appearing on television and radio.

William McKinney is currently a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. McKinney (U.S. Army, Ret.) was formerly the Northeast Asia Policy Branch Chief and the senior country director for the Koreas; Northeast Asia Policy Division, HQ, U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM). He also supported USPACOM missions as the director of the DPRK Strategic Focus Group (SFG) and deputy of the Strategy and Policy Division. With over forty-five years of experience in Asian Affairs, McKinney has provided his analysis and insight to the U.S. government, international organizations and private businesses. McKinney holds a MA in political science from the University of Colorado, majoring in international relations, and a BS from the U.S. Military Academy. He also graduated from the U.S. Army War College and Korean Army Staff College.