U.S.-ROK military exercises must end to salvage the peace process
Tom Fowdy

Editor's Note: Tom Fowdy, who graduated with an MSc in Chinese Studies from Oxford University and majored in politics at Durham University, writes on the international relations of China and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

On Wednesday morning, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) fired a number of projectiles from the country's South Hamgyong Province into the sea, which flew an estimated 240-330 kilometers. This is the second such test in the space of a week, with two short range missiles having been recently launched from Wonsan. The move comes amid the starting of "working-level talks" between the U.S Special Representative Stephen Biegun and his DPRK counterpart.

Pyongyang however, is disgruntled with pending military exercises between the U.S. and the Republic of Korea (ROK), scheduled to be held throughout August. It said it had "little choice" but to test the weapons, warning President Moon Jae-in to return to his "proper stance" pertaining to negotiations.

As a result, the DPRK is ramping up tensions again with what it sees as an unfair and one-sided position in the diplomatic process. Whilst its attitude is, of course, underpinned by the existing current of talks with the United States, which have lacked serious direction and momentum, Pyongyang nevertheless points towards an agreed suspension of both testing and missile exercises agreed in 2018 as a condition for dialogue.

By continuing to push for "rebranded" U.S.-ROK exercises on the peninsula, the White House is giving Pyongyang an entry point to resume testing under the justification it must militarily respond to what it sees as a threat to its own national security. It has repeatedly insisted that dialogue must be fair and reciprocal, rather than a one-sided capitulation.

ROK and U.S. militaries conduct a joint marine infiltration and attack exercise in Pohang, ROK, July 6, 2016. /VCG Photo

ROK and U.S. militaries conduct a joint marine infiltration and attack exercise in Pohang, ROK, July 6, 2016. /VCG Photo

In addition, Pyongyang has made it clear that it is not afraid to return to bigger and more serious testing if circumstances necessitate it. Thus, if Washington is really serious about upholding diplomacy with the DPRK, it must immediately cancel all joint exercises with the ROK, otherwise a disruptive August lies head.

The U.S.-ROK joint military exercises have long been a point of discontent for the DPRK. Pyongyang sees the termed "war games" of the two militaries as an effective rehearsal for an invasion. Although Washington and Seoul insist that the drills are defensive in nature, the idea of two armies conducting live fire exercises near an armistice border is always going to be viewed as provocative and unsettling, not least when U.S.-ROK capabilities now far exceed the DPRK's.

What makes Kim Jong Un more unhappy, however, is that in 2018 as a condition of dialogue, the two countries agreed not to press ahead with it. In turn, the DPRK promised not to test missiles. Whilst it is true to say that the United States cancelled the enormous "Foal Eagle" exercise, it has pursued with Seoul a number of smaller, less provocative exercises under "rebranded" names.

Whilst these smaller activities are justified under the mantra of "basic combat readiness," Pyongyang continues to see them as bad faith on behalf of the ROK in relation to the inter-Korean peace process, accusing it of "double dealing" with them and the United States. Recent purchases of F35's and other arms by Seoul from the United States appear to have also provoked Pyongyang.

As a result, Kim's retaliation is conducted under the logic of "if you conduct military exercises and purchase arms, we will enhance our capabilities and test missiles."

Of course, the whole scenario is not reciprocal to that single reason. The DPRK's long-term discontent at the flow of talks has been a running theme, particularly in regard to the lack of immediate concessions offered, as well as its repeated threat that it may resume larger testing if it perceives it isn't being treated fairly.

Kim Jong Un watching through binoculars as a new-type of tactical guided short-range missile is launched at an undisclosed location in DPRK, July 25, 2019. /VCG Photo

Kim Jong Un watching through binoculars as a new-type of tactical guided short-range missile is launched at an undisclosed location in DPRK, July 25, 2019. /VCG Photo

Given this, it may be argued that Pyongyang is once again sending a powerful warning to Washington and Seoul that nuclear talks cannot be a one-sided, all-for-nothing capitulation to American terms, with Pyongyang surrendering its nuclear program and the U.S. maintaining its military status quo on the Korean Peninsula.

Given this, whilst talks will continue, it has every intention of keeping things on edge and putting Washington on its toes.

In doing so, Pyongyang aims to make itself firmly clear that in order to give any military concessions and move forwards with the peace process, the U.S. "threat to its regime," often described as "Washington's hostile policy towards the DPRK" must come to an end, meaning that the U.S must effectively renounce potential "military options" against the state, offer the DPRK diplomatic recognition and end the Korean War. Otherwise, it will continue to place emphasis on its nuclear capabilities as a necessity for its own security.

Therefore, if Washington is truly serious about sustaining productive dialogue with the DPRK and does not want this diplomatic window to collapse, it should immediately suspend all U.S.-ROK military exercises as a gesture of good faith and sincerity, demonstrating its commitment to peace and opening the door to attaining meaningful nuclear concessions from Pyongyang. If not, then it's going to be a bumpy August.

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