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S. Korea, U.S. Decide to Suspend Military Exercise to Spur Denuclearization

South Korea and the U.S. have decided to suspend their combined military exercise, known as Ulchi Freedom Guardian, scheduled for August this year, in a good-will gesture to facilitate North Korea’s denuclearization. It marks the first time in 24 years that Seoul and Washington will not hold their combined military drills. Here is Shin Beom-chul at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies to explain.

Ulchi Freedom Guardian is a military training drill combining two exercises—South Korea’s Ulchi and the U.S.’ Focus Lens. The command post exercise focuses on how the allies and the South Korean government will respond to North Korea’s possible invasion. Pyongyang has criticized the exercise as a hostile policy toward the North. In the trust-building process after the North Korea-U.S. summit, the U.S. announced that it would halt the combined military exercise with South Korea.

The Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise is held annually at the end of August, and it is one of the three major South Korea-U.S. combined military drills, along with Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, based on a scenario of an all-out war on the Korean Peninsula. Government agencies, South Korean troops, the U.S. Forces Korea and reinforcements from the U.S. mainland participate in this military training, which symbolizes the South Korea-U.S. alliance and their deterrence against North Korea. Last year, 17-thousand U.S. troops joined the exercise. North Korea has been vehemently opposed to the drills and demanded every year that Seoul and Washington halt the training. Mr. Shin continues to explain.

Whenever South Korea and the U.S. held the large-scale joint military exercises, North Korea became nervous and held its own military drills. Even the top leader was not shown to the public during the training period for security reasons. Obviously, North Korea is pretty edgy about the South Korea-U.S. combined military drills. In a sense, though, North Korea justified its nuclear weapons development by constantly taking issue with the drills, which are defensive in nature. But South Korea and the U.S. have taken preemptive action aimed at building trust, urging North Korea to implement next-stage denuclearization measures.

The South Korea-U.S. military drills involving all types of strategic weapons are directly related to the security of the North Korean regime. In fact, it’s not the first time that the allies temporarily suspended their combined military exercises. Mr. Shin explains more.

In 1990, South Korea and the U.S. halted their military exercise due to the U.S.’ participation in the Gulf War. They skipped the drills in 1992 when South and North Korea signed a declaration pledging to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. The allies took the same action after the 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework. If history is any guide, the South Korea-U.S. military drills were suspended occasionally for particular purposes. This time, too, the suspension of the Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise has the purpose of promoting peace on the Korean Peninsula. By halting their military exercise, South Korea and the U.S. are urging North Korea to take denuclearization steps quickly.

North Korea will regard the suspension of the allies’ exercise, which it claims is a military threat, as a means of measuring sincerity toward a security guarantee for the North, prior to a bigger frame of security assurance, such as the declaration of the end to the Korean War or a non-aggression pledge. As the first symbolic gesture for peace after the North Korea-U.S. summit, South Korea and the U.S. decided to suspend their military exercise. Now, attention is being paid to how North Korea will react. Let’s hear again from Mr. Shin.

Now that Seoul and Washington have taken a preemptive measure to build trust, Pyongyang should take corresponding action. Some speculate that North Korea may destroy its missile engine testing site. Other denuclearization measures may include a halt to the operation of a nuclear reactor in Yongbyon and uranium enrichment facilities. In a broader frame, however, I believe a comprehensive agreement on a denuclearization timeline should be reached first. If North Korea fully cooperates for this urgent task of drawing up its denuclearization roadmap, the suspension of the South Korea-U.S. military exercise will carry great significance in the denuclearization process.

During the North Korea-U.S. summit last week, Kim Jong-un told Trump that his nation may demolish a missile engine testing site. Analysts are saying that the North may dismantle a test site in Tongchang-ri, North Pyongan Province, where the nation conducted a test of an engine for an intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. Some say that North Korea and the U.S. could discuss a more specific denuclearization roadmap during U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s upcoming North Korea visit, the third of its kind. The key is North Korea’s attitude. The future of the South Korea-U.S. military exercises will be different, depending on how North Korea implements the denuclearization steps. Mr. Shin continues.

South Korea and the U.S. hold the computer-simulated Key Resolve exercise and the field training Foal Eagle exercise in spring every year. The most important thing for now is whether North Korea will deliver on its denuclearization commitment. Pompeo is expected to visit North Korea again for negotiations. If the talks proceed well and there is progress in North Korea’s denuclearization process, South Korea and the U.S. may also suspend their springtime military exercises next year. That is to say, South Korea and the U.S. will compensate North Korea for its denuclearization in the form of a security guarantee through the suspension of their joint military exercises. But if North Korea doesn’t implement denuclearization measures faithfully, South Korea and the U.S. will resume their exercises. That’s what the allies are saying.

When announcing the decision on a temporary halt to the military exercise, South Korea and the U.S. stressed that the exercise will resume if North Korea fails to make progress in its denuclearization. In other words, the exercise may or may not resume, depending on Pyongyang’s denuclearization measures. North Korea must show a sincere attitude in order for the suspension of the exercise to provide crucial momentum to foster denuclearization.

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