In his new year’s press conference on January 27, Suh Wook, the Republic of Korea’s (ROK) defense minister, provided an ambiguous statement on plans for the combined ROK-U.S. military exercises scheduled for this spring. While he stated the exercises will continue as planned, Minister Suh also hinted that Seoul could reconsider the effort because the “joint military drills are negotiable with North Korea.” His equivocal remarks warrant concern, because a suspension of the exercises would continue undermining the U.S. and ROK’s combined military readiness. Moreover, suspending the exercises would feed directly into the North Korean regime’s political warfare strategy of extorting political, economic, and security concessions from its adversaries while giving up nothing in return.
On the day after the press conference, 387 South Korean and foreign civic organizations collectively urged the administration of ROK President Moon Jae-in to suspend the scheduled exercises, arguing that such a move “will be a crucial step toward restarting genuine diplomacy with North Korea.” South Korea’s unification minister, Lee In-young, expressed similar hopes for a “flexible” approach to the military exercises that aims to move the “peace process forward through dialogue and cooperation.”
Minister Lee and the advocacy groups are echoing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s public remarks from Pyongyang’s Eighth Party Congress in January. At the time, Kim said that ending military exercises and terminating Washington’s “hostile policy” are preconditions for restarting diplomacy with South Korea.
Unfortunately, there is little guarantee for Seoul that meeting Pyongyang’s preconditions will improve prospects for diplomacy and inter-Korean reconciliation. The Moon administration is operating under the flawed assumption that the Kim regime shares its vision for a permanent peace on the Korean peninsula. Thus, over the last two years, the U.S. and ROK militaries have suspended, postponed, and scaled back their combined military exercises. Both Seoul and Washington agreed that these adjustments to the exercises would help shape conditions for diplomacy with North Korea. Pyongyang, however, has failed to reciprocate any good-will gesture from Seoul or Washington.
In fact, North Korea’s military has responded by continuing its own seasonal training cycles at full capacity from 2019 to the present. Pyongyang also has conducted twenty-one weapons tests of short-range missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM), and multiple rocket-launcher systems. Additionally, in October 2020 and January 2021, the Kim regime held two ostentatious military parades showcasing new advanced weaponry, such as inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBM), SLBMs, and other conventional military equipment. An ICBM would boost North Korea’s ability to directly strike the territorial United States. Similarly, an SLBM would enhance Pyongyang’s missile arsenal by creating a second-strike capability alongside its current land-based capabilities. Kim’s intent for these parades was likely to signal to the world that North Korea will continue its efforts to put Pyongyang in a position of strength against all adversaries.
The North Korean military’s activities underscore the pressing need for Washington and Seoul to ensure their combined forces maintain their own readiness. Additionally, the United States and ROK cannot afford to continue suspending or reducing exercises in the hopes of eliciting a positive response from the North. Two years of suspensions and scaling back of these exercises have begun to degrade the readiness of U.S. and ROK combined forces, weakening U.S. deterrence and putting South Korea at greater security risk.
Prior examples of nuclear negotiations with North Korea show how the Kim regime exploits diplomacy for the sole purpose of reaping undue rewards and benefits while giving up nothing of its own. During the Six Party Talks that brought together the United States, North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia between 2003 and 2009 to achieve North Korea’s denuclearization, Pyongyang dragged out negotiations without ever following through on signed commitments to “not possess nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities” pursuant to the 1992 Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Pursuant to the 2005 Joint Statement of the Six Party Talks, North Korea also failed to “abandon all nuclear weapons programs and return at an early date to the Treaty of Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and to IAEA safeguards.”
Instead, North Korea continued operating its nuclear facilities, conducted its first nuclear weapons test in 2006, and even threatened to abandon negotiations solely to coerce the other governments to provide concessions.
One of North Korea’s top demands during the Six Party Talks was for the United States to return $25 million of Pyongyang’s financial assets held in a Macau bank, known as Banco Delta Asia (BDA). The Treasury Department froze Kim’s funds in 2005 after ruling that BDA is a “primary money laundering concern” supporting the regime’s illegal activity. Washington eventually returned the money to North Korea in 2007, hoping that this would prompt Pyongyang to follow through on its commitments.
Yet Pyongyang continued to disregard its obligations and instead issued new demands, such as the U.S. State Department’s de-listing of North Korea from its State Sponsors of Terrorism list. The regime also demanded a verification agreement that did not require Pyongyang to allow outside inspectors to conduct environmental sampling from its nuclear facilities. The agreement would therefore have enabled North Korea to potentially continue covert production of fissile material for weapons even after signing a commitment to abandon such programs. This cycle of coercion and concession continued until North Korea abandoned the Six Party Talks in 2009 after the U.S. and other countries refused to give in to North Korea’s proposed verification agreement.
Kim Jong-un’s recent speech during the Eighth Party Congress suggests Pyongyang will continue this coercive diplomacy even if Seoul suspends the exercises again for the sake of trying to restart talks. This reality is apparent from Kim’s explicit demand for an end to U.S. “hostile policy” in exchange for a new relationship. North Korean government officials have historically defined U.S. “hostile policy” as the U.S. military deployments in South Korea, economic sanctions, and the nuclear umbrella. Consequently, Kim is posturing himself to extort far more substantial concessions, which could include removing all U.S. troops and military assets from South Korea, ending the U.S. extended deterrence, and providing premature sanctions relief.
If the Moon administration truly seeks a permanent peace for Korea, it must avoid repeating history by capitulating to the Kim regime’s demands in the hope that Pyongyang will reciprocate. Instead, Seoul should impose military, diplomatic, and economic costs that force Kim to realize the risks of his current strategy. The first step of such an effort would entail moving forward with the upcoming U.S.-ROK combined military exercises. This will help Washington and Seoul resolve any issues in their readiness and interoperability that may have resulted from the past two years of downgrading these exercises.
Restoring the seamless readiness and top capabilities of the combined forces’ capabilities would serve as a critical foundation to deter North Korea and to sustain the United States and ROK in a position of strength for any future diplomatic efforts.
Mathew Ha is a research analyst focused on North Korea and East Asia at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP Follow him on Twitter @MatJunsuk. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.