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The Peninsula

Long-standing national security commitments override rapprochement promise

Published August 17, 2021
Author: Korea View

What Happened

  • Late last month, the two Koreas restored communications lines 13 months after Pyongyang cut off all communication lines to Seoul.
  • North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s sister Kim Yo-Jong warned that conducting an annual summertime U.S.-ROK joint military exercise would hamper efforts to rebuild trust between the two Koreas.
  • Despite the warning, South Korea decided to continue the military exercise with the U.S. military as planned.

Implications: Longstanding national security imperatives of the Korean state overrides policy goals espoused by any individual administration. South Korea pushed ahead with the annual joint U.S.-ROK joint military exercise despite threats from Pyongyang that President Moon Jae-in’s aim of resuming dialogue with North Korea could be disrupted by such a move. The priority placed on national security despite the risk of disrupting trust-building with Pyongyang is consistent with the Moon administration’s prior unease around the Trump administration’s unilateral cancellation of exercises following the 2018 U.S.-DPRK Summit in Singapore. Many South Koreans worried that the cancellation of joint exercises would leave U.S.-ROK forces unprepared to carry out combat operations in the event of war with North Korea. They also feared that it would lead to decreased U.S. military presence and lower commitment in Northeast Asia.

Context: Joint military exercises test the preparedness and improve the ability of U.S.-ROK forces to counter a possible attack by North Korea. They have persisted for decades over different administrations and political leanings. North Korea has historically denounced these joint military exercises as a rehearsal for invasion. Following South Korea’s decision to conduct the joint military exercise, North Korea has been unresponsive to South Korea’s phone calls via the reopened communication lines.

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Sean Blanco, Marina Dickson, and Jina Park. Picture from the flickr account of  U.S. Pacific Fleet.

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