South Korean and U.S. forces have decided to shift the focus of the annual "Key Resolve/Foal Eagle" joint military exercises from a full-scale war with North Korea to preparing for contingencies in the North and local provocations.
Around 10 years ago, the two allies began to factor in a possible collapse of the North Korean regime among potential threats. The U.S. proposed to the Kim Dae-jung administration that they do something about that possibility, and in 1999, a conceptual plan was devised. It then wanted to develop it into an operational plan containing specific plans for troop mobilization and deployment, but the Roh Moo-hyun administration rejected the idea for fear of agitating North Korea.
But since 2008, when North Korean leader Kim Jong-il suffered a massive stroke and the Lee Myung-bak administration was inaugurated in the South, the future of the North has become even more uncertain, making it difficult to predict what will happen to the communist country even two to three years down the road. As shown by the attacks against the Navy corvette Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island last year, North Korean provocations are a real and present danger.
There are now good reasons to worry more about North Korean special forces infiltrating the five West Sea islands or an implosion of the North Korean regime that would causing nuclear materials to fall into the wrong hands, and less about a conventional invasion and war. The time is right for South Korea and the U.S. to emerge from their traditional security paradigm and attempt a new type of joint military training that deals with these new realities.
But Seoul and Washington must also be wary of the possible diplomatic and political repercussions. North Korea may view any military exercise preparing for the death of its leader and the theft of its nuclear weapons as a grave threat to its national security. And the more active South Korea and the U.S. become about preparing for sudden changes in the North, the closer Pyongyang will cling to China. The South cannot afford to overlook the realistic threats posed by North Korea simply due to fears of provoking it, yet it must try and keep the channels of dialogue with the North open. That is the dilemma the country faces.