Sometime soon, US and South Korean warships will conduct two joint naval exercises off the Korean peninsula, the Pentagon announced on Monday. The maneuvers are intended as a response to North Korea’s sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan in March and will focus on antisubmarine warfare and the interdiction of banned weapons shipments, according to Defense Department officials.
It is also an area where the US and its South Korean ally likely will tread with caution. When it comes to responding to Pyongyang’s provocations, the US needs to appear strong and cautious at the same time, says Victor Cha, senior adviser and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
That’s because the North Koreans appear to respect military strength, but are also highly unpredictable. In light of that difficult geopolitical situation, the proposed US-South Korea naval exercises are a reasonable and necessary response, says Mr. Cha.
“You want to respond forcefully enough so that North Korea is deterred from doing it again, but you also don’t want to start a war,” he says.
America's balancing act
A team of international investigators last week issued concluded that a North Korean torpedo attack sank the Cheonan. Forty-six South Korean sailors were killed in the incident, the worst military loss for Seoul since the Korean War.
The nature of Seoul’s response to this tragedy is important to the US, as well as South Korea itself. South Korea is an important regional ally, and 28,000 US military personnel are based in the country. The US is bound by treaty to come to South Korea’s defense in any new Korean peninsula conflict.
As a result, the Obama administration response has been both supportive and a bit vague to this point. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, visiting China in an effort to win support for further diplomatic action against both North Korea and Iran, said that the US is trying as hard as it can to head off an armed conflict on the Korean peninsula.
“This is a highly precarious situation that the North Koreans have caused in the region,” Secretary Clinton said.
The US holds several large annual military exercises with South Korean forces, but they generally focus on land forces and the protection of South Korea against invasion from the North.
The largest of these exercises, known as Key Resolve/Foal Eagle, “is a large-scale combined field training exercise that includes the strategic deployment of American forces from bases in the US, as well as the participation of thousands of [South Korea] troops,” Gen. Walter Sharp, commander of US forces in Korea, told the Senate Armed Services Committee at a hearing on March 24.
More than just saber rattling?
US-South Korean naval exercises tend to be smaller scale. Last week, the US cancelled a previously scheduled annual event called “Courageous Channel,” a naval exercise intended to practice the evacuation of noncombatants from the Korean peninsula. At the time, US military officials said that they did not want North Korea to think that the exercise, set to run from May 20-24, was a response to the Cheonan incident.
Now the US apparently wants to make the opposite impression, by announcing naval exercises billed as a direct response to the Cheonan’s sinking. According to a White House statement, President Obama has ordered his military commanders to coordinate closely with South Korea “to ensure readiness and to deter future aggression” by North Korea.
Pentagon officials declined to specify when the exercises would take place, or which US forces would participate. The US is better than South Korea at antisubmarine warfare, notes Victor Cha of CSIS, due to decades of practice following Soviet submarines in open waters during the Cold War. In that sense South Korea indeed may learn valuable tactics from the scheduled maneuvers.