The United States and South Korea today concluded four days of highly publicized military exercises with a volley of shots against carefully submerged practice targets and the sense of accomplishing what they set out to do: intimidate North Korea.
While no one was writing “mission accomplished” on banners in reference to the spectacle of 20 US and South Korean navy vessels and 200 planes playing war games off the South’s east coast, South Korea's commanders were clearly buoyed by the massive display of US support.
South Korean Rear Adm. Kim Kyung-sik said the US and South Korea were now “better prepared to respond to any challenge” after warplanes from both countries practiced zeroing in on targets as elusive as the mini-submarine that sunk a South Korean navy vessel in March in the Yellow Sea off the South’s west coast.
Admiral Kim told Korean reporters that US and South Korean “impressive” firepower “sent a strong warning to North Korea that its aggressive behavior won’t be forgiven,” with the two sides “enhancing our combined defense capabilities.”
Road to confrontation
Although North Korea did not make good on threats to challenge the exercises militarily, skeptics see the war games as sharpening a sense of confrontation in the region while setting back peace and reconciliation efforts between the two Koreas.
“The US wanted to make sure to continue to maintain and strengthen its leadership in this corner of the world,” says Paik Hak-soon, long-time scholar on North Korea at the influential Sejong Institute in Korea, thereby “sacrificing its former goal of denuclearizing North Korea.”
North Korea has said it’s now interested in returning to six-party talks on its nuclear program, which were last held in Beijing in December 2008, but observers believe the North is planning a third underground test of a nuclear device and more missile tests.
“North Korea has many options,” says Mr. Paik. “No one can prevent North Korea. Nothing has been accomplished in terms of denuclearizing North Korea. What is left is more pronounced confrontation.”
China plays crucial role
Adding to the sense of deepening confrontation is the influence of China, whose protests led the US and South Korea to switch this week's exercises to the east coast instead of the Yellow Sea, the large body of water between the Korean peninsula and the Chinese mainland. Earlier in July, China conducted its own military exercises off its Yellow Sea coast with scores of planes and ships.
Mr. Paik of the Sejong Institute believes North Korea is heartened by increasing support from China, which blocked US and South Korean efforts to get the UN Security Council to pass a resolution blaming North Korea for the torpedo attack on the South Korean corvette the Cheonan. North Korea continues to deny any role in the attack in which 46 South Korean sailors died.
“With China’s assertive power, North Korea will have much more leeway to confront the US,” he says.
Clear message to North
Nonetheless, most analysts believe the exercises sent a clear message to North Korea not to engage in attacks similar to that on the Cheonan. And with US and South Korean planes and vessels planning to conduct regular monthly exercises, says Choi Jin-wook at the Korea Institute of National Unification, “they will continue to pressure North Korea.”
Mr. Choi says North Korea “has to change, to give up its nuclear program,” and he believes “they got the message.” He acknowledges, though, that “how much they can change” is the question.
North Korea has vowed to respond with “a nuclear deterrence” and “a sacred war,” but analysts say the rhetoric has come to sound so routine as not to appear as an immediate threat.
The latest editorial in Rodong Sinmun, the newspaper of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, seemed almost restrained compared to its commentaries when the war games began on Sunday. The paper on Wednesday denounced the war game as “reckless,” urging the US to “stop at once its criminal hostile policy that escalates military confrontation and tension on the peninsula.”