US-South Korean war games provide trigger that could further inflame Pyongyang

Key Points
  • South Korea's Ulchi-Freedom Guardian joint military exercises with tens of thousands of U.S. and Korean forces are set for Aug. 21.
  • The drills risk inflaming tensions as Pyongyang views them as a provocation.
  • A week after last year's exercises ended, North Korean set off its fifth nuclear test.
  • Pyongyang is warning it will test-fire missiles toward Guam.
  • U.S. defense experts see little or no chance the upcoming joint military drills will be canceled, and some believe it could even be beefed up.
US-South Korean war games provide trigger that could further inflame Pyongyang
US-South Korean war games provide trigger that could further inflame Pyongyang

Annual war games exercises with tens of thousands of U.S. and South Korean forces are expected to start later this month and could further inflame tensions with North Korea.

Defense experts see little or no chance Washington will call off the two-week drills. They believe doing so would jeopardize readiness and be the wrong signal to nuclear-armed North Korea and U.S. allies in the region. The North has previously indicated it might sit down for talks but first wanted joint military exercises to be halted.

The North Korean regime led by 33-year-old Kim Jong Un sees the drills as a provocation and sometimes responds with threats and a show of power. For example, last year the hermit regime conducted its fifth nuclear test exactly a week after the joint military exercises had formally concluded.

"The North describes them as a threat, but they're not a threat," said retired Army Special Forces Col. David Maxwell, now associate director of Georgetown University's Center for Security Studies. "North Korea and the regime are not crazy but they are paranoid. And they don't trust us just as much as we don't trust them."

One of the threats last year from the drills was North Korea vowing its military is "fully ready to mount a pre-emptive retaliatory strike" on South Korea and the U.S., according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency. It also called the exercises "a clear manifestation of a vicious plot" to hurt the communist state and its people.

Army forces train for task force mission during annual exercise known as Ulchi Freedom Guardian in South Korea.
Source: US Army

Maxwell, who served in Korea and elsewhere, described the drills as "a computer command-and-control exercise that is designed to train commanders and staffs in the execution of a war plan for the defense of Korea."

Last year, about 25,000 U.S. service members on the Korean peninsula participated in the so-called Ulchi-Freedom Guardian exercises, including some coming from offshore. About 50,000 South Korean troops and several other U.S. allies also participated.

According to South Korea's Yonhap News Agency, this year's Ulchi-Freedom Guardian exercises are scheduled to start on Aug. 21.

"The U.S. Forces Korea is still considering whether or how to announce the plan for the exercise, largely based on a computer simulation called a war game," Yonhap said Thursday. "One dilemma is the lack of official communication channel with the North to notify it of the training schedule in advance."

The U.S. military declined to comment to CNBC.

The U.S. Forces Korea previously described the exercises as "designed to enhance alliance readiness, protect the region and maintain stability on the Korean Peninsula."

South Korean soldier and police participate in an anti-terror and anti-chemical terror exercise as part of the 2016 Ulchi Freedom Guardian (UFG).
Chung Sung-Jun

"I'm assuming they are going to go forward," said Joel Wit, senior fellow at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and co-founder of Washington's 38 North think tank. "They're not going to be sort of miraculously turned off, and I would also assume...that people are considering ways of beefing them up, in order to reassure the South Koreans and show the North Koreans that we're being tough."

Added Wit, "So, that will not be a good situation. That could only make the tensions worse."

In June, a North Korean diplomat raised the possibility that Pyongyang might be "willing to talk" with the U.S. about freezing its nuclear and missile tests but first asked for the U.S. to "completely stop" large-scale joint military exercises with South Korea, temporarily or permanently.

"I would be reluctant to trade on those terms because of a signal it may be sending to others around the world and specifically to others that rely upon us heavily in the region," said retired Navy Vice Adm. Robert Murrett, deputy director of the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism at Syracuse University.

Murrett, a former director of Naval Intelligence who also ran the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, added that it still maybe a good idea to "do a day in, day out" assessment because of the situation on the Korean peninsula.

Tensions rose this week after President Donald Trump's "fire and fury" warning Tuesday to Pyongyang, which responded by claiming to be "carefully examining" a strike on the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam, where an estimated 6,000 U.S. troops are stationed.

Yonhap also reported Thursday that North Korea's military said it planned to test-fire intermediate range ballistic missiles near Guam. On Tuesday, the U.S. military flew B-1B Lancer strategic bombers over the peninsula in a show of force. The bombers operate from Andersen AFB on Guam.

"The key is to display our deterrent capability in sufficient strength so that the North Koreans will see it and will continue to feel that deterrent capability is credible," said retired Army Col. William McKinney, a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

McKinney, who during a 30-year military career spent 18 years in Korea, said the large-scale exercises such as the Ulchi-Freedom Guardian drills and the Key Resolve in March "play a key role in displaying that deterrent capability. So in many respects we want the North Koreans to see how powerful the alliance is through its exercises. That deters them from actual acts but doesn't necessarily deter them from provocative or bellicose statements."

Then again, McKinney said, the U.S. suspended a joint military training exercise called Team Spirit in the past "in order to achieve strategic objectives that we were looking for. And then when it appeared that the North was backsliding on their agreements, or not following through with what they had promised, we reinstituted the exercise."

Maxwell said the Team Spirit example demonstrated that Pyongyang couldn't be trusted.

"In 1993, we unilaterally ended Team Spirit as a confidence-building measure and stopped the exercise. But of course, North Korea continued its nuclear development," he said.