South Korea launches fresh round of military drills as North Korea seems to soften

South Korea launched a planned round of multi-day military exercises Wednesday, while rebuffing the North's recent conciliatory gestures.

Ahn Young-joon/AP
South Korean marines stand guard as they wait for their fellow soldiers to return to their base after patrolling along the seashore on Yeonpyeong island, South Korea, on Wednesday, Dec. 22.

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South Korea launched fresh military drills Wednesday, just days after it held live-fire military exercises despite North Korean threats of retaliation.

The naval exercise launched Wednesday, and Army and Air Force exercises scheduled for Thursday, come as the US dismissed a pledge from the North to allow inspectors to return to its nuclear facilities.

The South’s Navy began a three-day firing drill in the waters off the east coast of the peninsula, using warships and antisubmarine helicopters, reports The Korea Times (Agence France-Presse reports that the drill will last four days). The joint Army and Air force exercises are scheduled to take place at a firing range just 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the border with North Korea, and involve some 800 troops and fighter jets, attack helicopters, and tanks.

The Korea Times calls the Army and Air Force drill the “largest ever.” The exercises are conducted annually, but an Army spokesman said the drill was held on a larger scale this year. The New York Times, however, reports that a South Korean defense official denied the media reports characterizing the drill as larger than ever before, and said it was “ordinary.”

The military exercises have been planned since last year, but they come at a sensitive time. Monday, South Korea held live-fire exercises on Yeonpyeong Island, located off the western coast of the peninsula, where the maritime border between the two nations is disputed. Last month, North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong Island, killing four people, after a similar exercise by the South. The North threatened “brutal consequences beyond imagination” if the South went through with the drill, but it backed down and didn't retaliate.

The Christian Science Monitor reports that many in the South saw the lack of reaction from the North as a bluff intended to extract concessions and appease the international community. The North also made a pledge Tuesday to an unofficial US envoy, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, to allow inspectors to visit its nuclear sites, but the move was quickly dismissed by US officials. Reuters reports that White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said “the action must come not from their words, but from their deeds.” He said the US would not move to resume six-party talks with the North about its nuclear program until the North changes its behavior.

An editorial in The Korea Times argues that while the South is correct to suspect the sincerity of the North’s pledge, it should seize the opportunity for a “diplomatic counterattack,” sending the ball back to the North’s court by “accepting the dialogue offer and including the inspection of uranium power plants in inspection targets.”

The key lies in Seoul returning to the center of the diplomatic stage instead of shying away from it and only calling for the change in Pyongyang’s attitude.
While South Korea has maintained its own version of the "strategic patience” – waiting for either the North’s voluntary denuclearization or implosion – Pyongyang has gone even more wayward to insult Seoul with unprovoked violence, while the two Northern partners of China and Russia have come to admonish the South on self-restraint, unreasonably treating the villain and victim as the same. There is no reason whatsoever for South Korea to endure this insult and humiliation by remaining as a passive player.

The editorial argues that South Korea should use more skillful diplomacy to avoid alienating China, the North’s largest ally, and Russia. That echoes an editorial in the South Korean paper Chosun Ilbo, which castigates the South for failures in diplomacy and urges the government to pursue more strategic action on the diplomatic front.

While maintaining a solid alliance with the U.S., Seoul needs to consider soothing Beijing's nerves by sending a message that it will not add pressure on China, and it should remind Russia that cooperation on the political level can benefit both sides economically. Now the top task in national security other than maintaining a watertight military defense against North Korean provocations is to find a breakthrough in diplomatic relations with China and Russia.

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