The North Korea Threat and the US-South Korea Joint Military Exercise

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South Korea and the United States held the annual joint military exercise–’Ulchi Freedom Shield’ (UFS), with some 580,00 troops and a civil defense drill involving all Korean citizens, in the last week and a half of August. U.S. Air Force’s one of the advanced B-1 bombers and the U.S. Space Force, a new division formed last December, took part in the drill for the first time. This is the biggest military and defense drill held in six years amid usual North Korean rhetoric of threat and counteracting missile tests. According the joint statement of both the military, the overarching objective of this 11-day annual joint military exercise was to reinforce the collective defense capabilities in response to potential security threats on the Korean Peninsula, as the North Korea has recently been heating up the situation on the peninsula with leader Kim Jong Un’s call to “strongly increase” missile production capacity and prepare for future conflict. The exercise incorporated a range of military training scenarios that took into account North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile capabilities, as well as its professed intentions regarding nuclear build-up and missile development.

The Korean Peninsula has been a boiling pot of geopolitical tension for decades, characterized by the enduring discord between North and South Korea and related dynamics in the region and beyond. In the midst of this complex and delicate regional landscape of the peninsula, the joint military exercises evoked a stark reaction from North Korea and there is always the risk of the peninsula becoming a geopolitical flashpoint.

A Glimpse on the Peninsula’s History of Tension

The root of the ongoing tension lies in the Korean war that raged from 1950 to 1953. The recent history of the Korean peninsula is a history of conflict and unresolved animosities. The conflict, which never officially ended with a peace treaty, left the two countries still in a legal state of war and a legacy of division and hostility. The war resulted in the demarcation of the 38th parallel to divide the two Koreas and the establishment of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). To this day, the DMZ exists as a concrete symbol of the ongoing division and the potential for conflict. The cold war’s ideological conflict that caused the polarization still has its effect in the peninsula, as North Korea directly declares the US and South Korea, its opponent in the Korean war, as its primary enemy. Within the realm of global politics, the situation on the Korean Peninsula holds profound significance, as all the major powers, the United States, China, and Russia vying for influence with escalating tension. Additionally, the contemporary North Korean nuclear program adds a layer of complexity, a new dimension of threat, making the Korean Peninsula a potential flashpoint for global security anytime.

The Joint Military Exercise

Taking place from August 21-31, the Ulchi Freedom Shield exercise was based on an all-out war scenario, including random exercises, such as computer-simulated command post drills, field training and civil defense drills. The exercise had two basic parts― the first segment involving drills on repelling North Korean attacks, defending the greater Seoul area  and evacuating the civilians, with the second part focusing on counterattack operations. It was an all encompassing war drill that was designed to fortify the unified defense posture and enhance the alliance’s responsiveness through various scenarios that simulate real war situations i.e. taking into consideration of the concept of state sponsored terrorism threat, drone attacks, North Korea’s disinformation campaign and the regard of evolving cyber threats against key facilities such as chip factories and supply chains.

South Korea’s military has said this year’s exercises were held on the largest scale ever, and also include some member states of the United Nations Command. Almost 30 field training events were exercised this year, compared to 13 last summer. Some 1,600 tracked and wheeled vehicles and 450 aircrafts including FA-50 light attack aircraft and F-16 fighter jets, along with artillery equipment such as K1A2 tanks and K9A1 self-propelled howitzers, participated in the training. Perhaps the most important feature of this year’s military exercise was the participation of U.S. Air Force’s B-1 bombers, one of the advanced and heavy bombing jets in the world, and the recently formed US space force, considering North Korea’s ambitious satellite launching into space and proclamation of acquiring high altitude ICBM and hypersonic missiles. The South Korean authority also arranged civil defense drills separately, which required South Korea’s 51 million residents to practice evacuating to shelters or underground spaces such as train stations.

North Korean Response

Pyongyang has always reacted very sensitively towards joint military drills and has described such drills as a rehearsal for invasion of its territory. It normally expressed distress by firing off missiles and inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) into the East Sea, and this time it was no different. Several segments of the drill were carried out in Cheorwon, near the border with North Korea, Pyongyang identified it as a direct provocation and warned that the allies had made the thermo-nuclear war on the peninsula more than likely.

North Korean hackers carried out a targeted email attack on South Korean contractors working at the war simulation center and Pyongyang announced a new missile test. Kim Jong Un pledged an overwhelming response, and on the day of the inauguration of the drill, North Korean  state news media– Korean Central News Agency (KCNA)– reported a visit by leader Kim Jong-un to a warship to oversee a cruise missile test. Pyongyang fired two short-range ballistic missiles into the sea that day. According to South Korean military officials, the missiles traveled more than 225 miles at a maximum altitude of 30 miles before landing in the waters between South Korea and Japan. North Korea is extremely sensitive to the deployment of U.S. B-1 bombers, as the predecessor of its kind, caused havoc on North Korea during the war. The North describes the bombers as “nuclear strategic” although the planes were switched to conventional weaponry in the 1990s.

Global Implications

While the North Korean reaction was anticipated, anything in the Korean peninsula is heavily entangled with global geopolitics. Participation of the U.S. Air Force B-1 bombers, the U.S. Space Force’s in regional exercises are not solely a response to the threat from any one specific country but falls under the broader security realm of maintaining authority in the eastern Pacific, especially targeted to China. In addition, North Korea has recently sought to expand into space by launching a spy satellite, but twice failed, with the latest one happening during the drill on August 24. Such attempts indicate a significant concern for the western allies for the future, the inclusion of space forces, therefore, is significant for future threat preparedness. Moreover, last year North Korea adopted a new law that authorized the preemptive use of nuclear weapons in a broad range of situations, considering the unpredictable nature, it simply translates as Pyongyong’s nuclear weapon’s first use of policy in potential conflicts with South Korea and the U.S. Moreover, Kim’s visit to Russia, just after the conclusion of the drill, and speculation of military cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang has brought fresh tension in the peninsula.

The joint military exercise ‘Ulchi Freedom Shield’ and North Korea’s reaction to it signify a volatile nexus of geopolitics, and global security dynamics. These annual exercises, featuring unprecedented participation from the U.S. Space Force and B-1 bombers serve not only as a defense rehearsal but also as a statement of influence, echoing beyond the peninsula to encompass broader geopolitical implications. North Korea’s eventual sharp responses, including missile tests and escalating rhetoric, ultimately underline the perpetual fragility of the region.

– Wahid Uzzaman Sifat is a Research Intern at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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