Is This the End for Korea-U.S. Defensive Drills?

      June 20, 2018 13:03

      South Korea and the U.S. said Tuesday that the joint Freedom Guardian drills that normally take place in August will be suspended while denuclearization talks with North Korea go on. If North Korea ends up scrapping its nuclear weapons, the suspension will have been worth it, but for the moment there are no signs of that whatsoever. That means the decision to suspend the drills, which have served as both a powerful deterrent against North Korean aggression and as a symbol of the strong Seoul-Washington alliance, is hasty at best.

      As both South Korea and the U.S. have said, the exercises are purely defensive in nature, and Freedom Guardian involves the least number of weapons and troops of any of the regular joint drills and focuses primarily on computer simulations. It cannot therefore pose any great threat to North Korea and there was no real need to suspend it simply because negotiations are underway. North Korea has demanded for decades that the joint military drills be halted, but South Korea and the U.S. wisely ignored the demands since the exercises symbolize the strong Seoul-Washington alliance. The only time they were halted was back in 1992, to coax the North into scrapping its nuclear program, and everyone knows how successful that was.

      What is even more alarming is that U.S. President Donald Trump effectively decided to halt the drills unilaterally and without consulting with South Korea. Even the U.S. Defense Department seems to have been caught off guard by Trump's giddy announcement in Singapore last week that he would be stopping the "war games." U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis says he knew, but it looks like he had little time to consider the choice. It is appalling to think that such an important decision was made on the hoof. By describing the drills as "provocative," Trump sounded just like North Korea, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un finally got his wish.

      The joint drills were supposed to be used as a final card in a drawn-out negotiating process with North Korea. But now that card has been dropped before full-fledged talks have even begun. What was the rush? All North Korea had done was to close down a nuclear test site that by all accounts was unusable already.

      It was perhaps due to such concerns that the White House hastily added some conditions to suspending the drills, saying it depends on North Korea displaying "good faith," while Cheong Wa Dae also stressed that the suspension will last as long as the North "shows its willingness to denuclearize and continues dialogue." But a resumption of the drills would surely give the North an excuse to protest and not hold up its end of any bargain. Still, realistically the joint drills are on their way out, and by and by the U.S. troops stationed in South Korea will only be here to defend American bases until they too are withdrawn.

      Nobody knows what other unbelievable deals have been made in working-level talks between the U.S. and North Korea. Kim has already gotten far more than he ever wished for and seems on course to shed his image as a vicious dictator by palling around with Trump, who has expressed his admirations for Kim's "tough" leadership style. Already the North Korean denuclearization issue has morphed into denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Kim is now on his third trip to China this year, where he will have discussed ways to blunt international sanctions. China already lifted a travel ban for North Korea and reportedly eased trade bans as well. How can North Korea ever be persuaded to scrap its nuclear weapons now?

      U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo promised there would be no easing of sanctions until North Korea proves it has completely scrapped its nuclear weapons. But judging by the Trump administration's track record, this pledge could change too. South Korea and the U.S. say they are proceeding with talks with North Korea based in good faith. But security is something to be taken on faith alone.

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