Last week, South Korea and the US commenced several huge, live-fire military exercises for the first time in several years in a clear signal to Pyongyang. Known collectively as the Ulchi Freedom Shield exercises, they are a showcase of the military muscles of the two allies at sea, in the air, on land and in space. Lasting through Thursday, the exercises also have a significant cybercomponent.
I have been involved in these war games many times, going back to my earliest days at sea in the Pacific serving in an anti-submarine destroyer. Over the years they have increased in tempo and scope, involving hundreds of ships, tanks, aircraft, satellites and tens of thousands of troops. They are among the most demanding of all US exercises globally.
As in years past, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has vociferously condemned the exercises, depicting them as rehearsals for an invasion, and making them the centerpiece in defending his illegal nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. However, the US also has other reasons beyond Kim’s bluster to signal its ironclad commitment to its treaty ally. This year’s version of the exercises comes at a particularly fraught time.
In East Asia, US-China tensions are peaking over Taiwan, and new governments have taken office in US allies Japan, South Korea and Australia. That is happening against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and in the aftermath of the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan, which has raised questions about US credibility and willingness to stand by its commitments.
Kim had been relatively quiescent over the two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, which also coincided with a downgrading of the US-South Korea live-fire exercises by the administration of former US president Donald Trump, whose attempts at personal diplomacy produced no concrete results in terms of the North’s denuclearization. Now, not only does Kim likely miss the international prominence he had achieved during those years, but North Korea also faces increasingly dire pressures from a combination of international sanctions, the pandemic and global inflation.
Speculation is therefore growing in Washington and Seoul that Kim ight use the exercises to justify another nuclear test, something he has not done since the sixth such event in Sept. 2017. Kim is also seeking to ingratiate himself with the Kremlin by pledging military support and guest workers to the Russian invasion forces in Ukraine. In response, the South Koreans will showcase a civil defense training program that will feature educating civilians in responding to an attack and providing logistics support to their military.
Ulchi Freedom Shield will also use the lessons that militaries worldwide are drawing from events in Ukraine: the importance of advanced drones, civilian-military cooperation, air defense against attacks launched at critical infrastructure, and the vulnerabilities of tanks and other armored vehicles if deployed without sufficient combined arms support. Above all, the US and South Korea want to test their logistical capabilities, which have been so lacking on the part of Russian forces in Crimea.
In the past, these exercises had included 200,000 South Korean troops and a significant portion of the nearly 30,000 US troops based on the peninsula. Significant elements of the US 7th Fleet, homebased in Japan, and associated amphibious ships from nearby Sasebo, Japan, are to deploy for the war games.
Two other recent developments also raise the importance and profile of the exercises. The first is the election of the most conservative and pro-defense government in recent South Korean history, led by South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol. The new administration in Seoul has pledged strong defense increases, acquisition of new military technologies and greater military cooperation with the US and other Western allies in the region.
The second important element is the abrupt rejection by Kim of a peace feeler from Seoul. The South Koreans had offered a sweeping proposal of economic benefits in return for denuclearization (not entirely unlike the package Washington put forth under Trump). The South promised food, agriculture assistance, health infrastructure and other benefits — but did not address the crippling sanctions under which the North Koreans chafe.
In her role as North Korea’s public spokeswoman, Kim’s sister Kim Yo-jong scornfully denounced the offer as “stupid.” She went on to blame the COVID-19 outbreaks in the north on South Korea and promised “deadly retaliation.”
Pyongyang continues on a record pace with major missile tests — more than 30 and rising, more than in any other year. Of particular note is North Korea’s launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile for the first time in five years. North and South Korea are on a collision course, and the spark that might increase already high tensions are both the exercises, but also the potential nuclear test.
The US must thus continue to strongly support the South Koreans, and not just as a matter of upholding its treaty obligations. Although US support for Ukraine has mitigated some of the damage done to Washington’s credibility by its Kabul withdrawal, its behavior is being closely watched.
The US’ NATO partners are following events in the Pacific as they decide how strongly to support US leadership on Ukraine in the cold winter ahead. So will Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), as he calculates his next move on Taiwan. A lot is riding on the successful execution of these exercises — with consequences that will ripple far beyond the peninsula.
James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A retired US Navy admiral, former supreme allied commander of NATO and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, he is vice chairman of global affairs at the Carlyle Group. He is the author most recently of To Risk It All: Nine Conflicts and the Crucible of Decision. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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