Debates arise over call to cancel joint military drills     DATE: 2024-07-15 15:41:40

Moon Chung-in,<strong></strong> chairman of the Sejong Institute and former special advisor to President Moon Jae-in for foreign and national security affairs, speaks during a webinar 'Nurturing Negotiations: How to Jumpstart and Sustain Diplomacy with North Korea,' co-hosted by the Washington-based National Committee on North Korea and the Seoul-based East Asia Foundation, Wednesday. Captured from YouTube
Moon Chung-in, chairman of the Sejong Institute and former special advisor to President Moon Jae-in for foreign and national security affairs, speaks during a webinar "Nurturing Negotiations: How to Jumpstart and Sustain Diplomacy with North Korea," co-hosted by the Washington-based National Committee on North Korea and the Seoul-based East Asia Foundation, Wednesday. Captured from YouTube

Experts express concerns over weakening of combined nuclear deterrence capabilities

By Jung Da-min

A debate has arisen over whether South Korea and the U.S. should cancel their annual joint military exercises scheduled to be held in August, with some government officials and experts ― who advocate engagement with North Korea ― saying Pyongyang will not return to denuclearization talks as long as they continue to be held.

However, others question whether such a cancellation would have any effect at all noting the distinct probability that the North will not take any corresponding actions.

In August, the allies are scheduled to hold the annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian (UFG) command post exercise without the large-scale mobilization of troops. Pyongyang has long denounced such joint military drills, calling them a rehearsal for invasion. In the past couple of years, Seoul and Washington have cancelled or scaled down the exercises, either for diplomatic reasons or, as in 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sejong Institute Chairman Moon Chung-in, a former special advisor to President Moon Jae-in on foreign and national security affairs, said that South Korea and the U.S. should announce the cancellation of UFG this month so as to send a signal to North Korea that the allies were prepared to open a dialogue.

He said that June was the most critical moment considering the timing of the South Korea-U.S. summit held May 21, and South Korea's domestic political situation with the next presidential election less than nine months away.

"Obviously the No. 1 issue is the ROK-U.S. joint military exercise, which is scheduled in August. Unless we resolve this issue, it is very unlikely that North Korea will come back to us for dialogue. The North may be very, very hesitant about starting dialogue with the United States because … North Korea has been arguing that there is a sign of hostile intent and policy from the United States," Moon said during a webinar titled, "Nurturing Negotiations: How to Jumpstart and Sustain Diplomacy with North Korea," co-hosted by the Washington-based National Committee on North Korea and the Seoul-based East Asia Foundation, Wednesday.

"Therefore, the first thing is whether our government, after consulting with the United States, announces that the joint military exercise will be suspended. Not reduced in size……that may not work on North Korea, but suspended. That is the most important variable through which we can tell whether North Korea will come back to dialogue or not."

Moon said Pyongyang has yet to issue a response to the May 21 summit between South Korea and the United States, which is a good sign in that it has not criticized the results of the meeting and has left room for the possibility of dialogue. But he said it is a bad sign at the same time in that the countries could lose momentum for dialogue if the North maintains its silence, considering the uncertainties in the international community.

"If we miss this month of June, then it would be very difficult for the incumbent government to do anything. Because starting from September, we will be entering the presidential campaign period, even if North Korea shows a goodwill gesture, then that would be a northern wind that North Korea is considering South Korea's domestic politics, therefore June is the most critical month," Moon said.

Earlier this month, Unification Minister Lee In-young also called for "maximum flexibility" in deciding on whether and how to conduct the joint exercises.

"One obvious thing is that combined drills should never work in a way that causes or further escalates tensions on the Korean Peninsula," he said in a KBS radio interview.

Moon Chung-in, chairman of the Sejong Institute and former special advisor to President Moon Jae-in for foreign and national security affairs, speaks during a webinar 'Nurturing Negotiations: How to Jumpstart and Sustain Diplomacy with North Korea,' co-hosted by the Washington-based National Committee on North Korea and the Seoul-based East Asia Foundation, Wednesday. Captured from YouTube
Military helicopters at U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, are seen in this March 7 photo. Yonhap

But military experts have expressed concerns over the idea of canceling the UFG, saying maintaining a combined military readiness is more important when it is not certain if there will be corresponding measures from the North.

"So far under the Moon administration, there have been three inter-Korean summits and two U.S.-North Korea summits, but there has been no progress in the matter of North Korea's denuclearization," said Moon Sung-mook, a senior researcher at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy.

"What I am most concerned about is that the combined nuclear deterrence capabilities of South Korea and the United States have been weakened with the countries suspending three major joint military exercises under the current Moon administration," he added.

Gen. Paul LaCamera, nominated to command the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), said in his Senate confirmation hearing held mid-May that live training is "a lot better than virtual," adding, "But I recognize that in negotiations it is a potential bargaining chip going forward and my job will be to identify that risk and then figure out a way to reduce it."

Park Won-gon, a professor at Ewha Womans University's Department of North Korea Studies, said if South Korea wants to use the possible suspension or cancellation of the UFG as a negotiating card with the North, then it should make it conditional, by telling Pyongyang that Seoul and Washington will resume the now-suspended major joint military exercises starting next year if the North does not make any corresponding move.

Meanwhile, Sung Kim, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, is set to visit Seoul from Saturday to next Wednesday for talks not only with his South Korean counterpart, Noh Kyu-duk, but also for a trilateral session involving Japanese nuclear envoy Takehiro Funakoshi, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Thursday.