|U.S. Forces Korea Commander Gen. Robert Abrams, second from right, inspects an artillery drill at Rodriguez Live Fire Complex in Paju, Gyeonggi Province in this Oct. 23, 2019 photo. / Korea Times file|
By Kang Seung-woo
Amid growing speculation that joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States are likely to be called off in a bid to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and appease North Korea, diplomatic experts believe a cancellation as an olive branch to Pyongyang is not a good idea, saying there will be no "reciprocity" from the isolated country.
Currently, the government is in a quandary over whether to cancel the annual drills as the COVID-19 pandemic shows no sign of abating. The exercises will bring hundreds of American troops here, raising concerns over possible new infections.
In addition, further deepening Seoul's calculations is the possibility of military retaliation from the Kim Jong-un regime, as the totalitarian state describes the exercises as hostile action by the U.S. against the North.
The government also wants the exercises to be focused on assessing the Korean military's relevant capabilities on its way to regaining wartime operational control (OPCON) from the U.S. by 2022. Either a delay or a cancellation of the drills could disrupt the timetable for that.
"If the military exercises are canceled or postponed, it is possible North Korea will relent and agree to an eventual working level meeting, in response to recent U.S.-South Korea requests to resume negotiations. I doubt, however, that the cancellation or postponement of the exercises will motivate the North to resume working-level negotiations, given that it has refused to meet with the U.S. or ROK since late 2019," Joseph DeTrani, a former U.S. special envoy to the six-party talks, told The Korea Times, referring to South Korea by its formal name, the Republic of Korea.
"I believe North Korea will want assurances that meet some of their demands before they return to a working-level meeting, even if military exercises do not resume."
Leif-Eric Easley, an associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University, expressed a similar view.
"Exercises can be rescaled, rescheduled or repackaged for diplomatic purposes or for safety and logistical reasons, as during a global pandemic. But canceling exercises to appease Pyongyang would be unwise because there is little evidence of North Korean reciprocity," he said.
With no signs of a breakthrough in the deadlock in denuclearization talks between the North and the U.S., accompanied by stalled inter-Korean ties, there are growing calls from the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) and liberals here, including President Moon Jae-in's security adviser Moon Chung-in, for canceling or delaying the joint exercises to bring the North back to the negotiating table.
"President Moon's proposal in December 2017 to postpone the 2018 joint military exercises until after the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, which was later accepted by U.S. President Donald Trump, paved the way for improving inter-Korean relations. In that respect, the ruling party plans to explore ways to rearrange the schedule for the drills," Rep. Cho Jeong-sik, the DPK's chief policymaker, said last week.
In addition, Kim Yo-jong, the North Korean leader's sister, urged the U.S. to stop the joint drills.
"I remind the U.S. that denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula can be realized only when there are major changes made on the other side, i.e. the irreversible simultaneous major steps to be taken in parallel with our actions," she told the Korean Central News Agency, Friday.
However, Easley said those who undervalue the exercises undervalue the alliance or don't understand how militaries work.
"U.S.-ROK combined defense exercises are essential for maintaining readiness, interoperability and deterrence," he said.
In response to concerns over the possible delay of the OPCON transition, dented by the disruption of the military drills, DeTrani said it would not be a big hurdle in meeting the deadline. The South Korean military initially planned to test full operational capability (FOC), the second of the three-phase verification process for OPCON transfer.
"I assume South Korea and the U.S. would want to conduct the second of three planned FOC drills to prepare for OPCON by 2022. If the second FOC next month is canceled or postponed, I'm confident the U.S. and ROK will make the necessary arrangements to ensure readiness for OPCON by 2022," the former ambassador said.
The Moon administration is seeking to complete the transfer, which has been delayed on multiple occasions under the previous conservative governments, before its term ends in 2022 to establish self-reliance in national defense.
But Easley questioned the South's rush to take back wartime OPCON. It regained peacetime OPCON in 1994.
"It also doesn't make sense to rush OPCON transfer because the security risks of doing so would far outweigh the political and economic benefits," he said. "Some politicians focus on symbols of sovereignty, but the political importance of OPCON transfer pales in comparison to ensuring national security and successfully managing the pandemic-era economy."