By Travis Lindsay
U.S.-ROK military exercises have been a key piece of the American presence on the Korean peninsula for more than half a century. Exercise “Chugi” kicked off in the autumn of 1955, and has since evolved into the well-known “Key Resolve”, “Foal Eagle”, and “Ulchi Freedom Guardian” exercises that take place in the spring and autumn of each year. These exercises exist to deter North Korean aggression, both by increasing the combat readiness of U.S. and ROK forces and by demonstrating America’s credible commitment to its South Korean ally.
Both these components – readiness and credibility – have been necessary to maintain effective deterrence on the peninsula. The exercises demonstrate American and South Korean military capabilities, minimizing uncertainty and miscalculation that might lead the DPRK to believe it can use military means to achieve political goals. The exercises not only help maintain deterrence, but they are also a key tool in a larger context that includes the alliance’s long term goals: stability, denuclearization, and eventual reunification.
The exercises have also taken on political dimensions as they’ve been used to spur negotiations (as a key piece of the 1994 Agreed Framework) as well as the focal point of declaratory policy via North Korean pleas to “just give peace a chance”. The exercises are unique in that they allow the alliance to sustain deterrence and stability in the short term while offering an opportunity for leverage in promoting broader goals of denuclearization and reunification in the medium term. They are also unique in that they are one of the few solutions on the denuclearization issue that offers a security solution for what is essentially a security problem. The negotiating leverage the exercises offer, however, can only be operationalized if they do not threaten to create credibility or readiness deficits that would undermine their overall purpose as a guarantor of the U.S.-ROK deterrent.
The credibility issue is particularly salient today, with the ROK facing increasing uncertainty from a possible “America First” Trump presidency in the U.S., a downturn in relations with China, a complicated relationship with Japan, and the growing strategic threat from North Korea. The exercises have been a key part of the U.S. signaling to North Korea that it is ready and capable to wage a conventional war, and to South Korea that the U.S. is ready and willing to make good on its alliance commitments in case of conflict. This not only deters large scale military action by the DPRK, but it also moderates South Korea’s military posture and the perceived need to develop a nuclear weapons capability of its own. To be sure, exercises are not the fulcrum the alliance rests upon – rather, it’s the 28,500 American service members and their families that are the real bedrock of America’s commitment. At the same time, U.S. wavering on exercises without coordination with and support of the ROK government would give the impression that the U.S. is turning away from, rather than solving, the problems on the peninsula.
Increases in readiness serve to assure that the alliance is ready and able to respond to the DPRK’s increasingly dynamic and asymmetric capabilities. However, North Korea’s ability to win a conventional war has been in decline since at least the 1990s, both in terms of its own force degradation and the increasing capabilities of the U.S.-ROK alliance (helped along by the constantly evolving nature of exercises). With this in mind, the exercises function less as a component intrinsic to winning a conventional war. We can instead view them through the lens of how exercises may reduce the human and capital costs of winning that conventional war.
The DPRK has been vociferously opposed to the exercises across all three generations of leadership, and interprets the exercises as having hostile intent rather than being defensive in nature. The exercises often come alongside increased tensions on the peninsula, pushed along by North Korea via low scale provocations, bellicose rhetoric from the DPRK, and mobilization of its forces in anticipation for war.
Putting the exercises into the larger context of alliance interests on the peninsula, the DPRK has offered to pause nuclear tests if the alliance were to stop exercising. The offer was rejected, in part because a testing freeze falls far short of the United States desire for CVID – complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of the DPRK’s weapons program. The implication, though, is clear: the DPRK claims to be willing to pay a price for the cessation of exercises.
A question remains of exactly how military exercises may play into future comprehensive or incremental deal making between the alliance and the DPRK. The exercises after all are flexible – they can be relocated, scaled up or down, stopped, or restarted as necessary. The alliance did exactly that when they suspended the Team Spirit exercises in 1992, 1994, 1995, and 1996 as they navigated the first nuclear crisis and negotiated the Agreed Framework. If the alliance could forge a credible denuclearization deal with the exercises on the table, administrations in both Seoul and Washington might be willing to take accommodative positions on the exercises.
The alliance could also consider alternate concessions if they would yield a net increase in stability on the peninsula. If the DPRK offered to significantly cut its military forces or move its forward deployed artillery away from the DMZ, would the alliance consider reciprocating by scaling down exercises? It wouldn’t be the first time the United States has accepted mutual reductions in force capabilities, as it did with the Soviet Union in 1990. A reduction in DPRK military capabilities might make reciprocal reductions to alliance readiness palatable to ROK and U.S. military commanders. Considering the denuclearization agenda has been at an impasse for nearly a decade, demilitarization and de-escalation may represent the type of trust building incrementalism needed to restore forward momentum on the Korean peninsula.
Travis Lindsay is an intern with the Korea Economic Institute and a graduate student at the UCSD School of Global Policy & Strategy. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Republic of Korea Armed Forces on Wikimedia Creative Commons.