US-South Korea military drills to resume despite thaw with Pyongyang

Crew members look at a US Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter as it lands on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington during joint military drills between the US and South Korea in the Yellow Sea in this 2012 photo. (AFP)
Updated 20 March 2018
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US-South Korea military drills to resume despite thaw with Pyongyang

SEOUL: The US and South Korea announced Tuesday that their annual joint military drills would go ahead next month, with no significant downsize in scale despite an ongoing diplomatic thaw with North Korea.
The large-scale exercises involving tens of thousands of ground troops are a perennial source of tension between the two Koreas, with Pyongyang condemning them as provocative rehearsals for an invasion of the North.
With talks under way to set up a North-South summit, followed by a proposed face-to-face meet between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, there was speculation that this year’s drills might be scaled back to avoid derailing the discussions.
They had already been delayed to avoid clashing with the Pyeongchang Winter Games in the South last month.
But Washington and Seoul said the exercises, expected to resume on April 1, would be “similar” in size to those of previous years.
“The UN Command has notified today the North Korean military on the schedule as well as the defensive nature of the annual exercises,” Seoul’s defense ministry spokeswoman told reporters.
The Pentagon added in a statement: “Our combined exercises are defense-oriented and there is no reason for North Korea to view them as a provocation.”
According to a senior South Korean envoy who made a rare visit to Pyongyang earlier this month, Kim had made it clear he “understands” the need for the drills to go ahead.
Such an acknowledgement is in stark contrast to the Kim regime’s denunciations of the exercises in the past. The North has often responded to the drills with its own military actions, and last year fired four ballistic missiles close to Japan.
“Foal Eagle” is a series of field training exercises with approximately 11,500 US forces taking part, together with 290,000 South Korean troops, while “Key Resolve” is a command post exercise using mainly computer-based simulations.
The US, as South Korea’s security guarantor, has close to 30,000 troops stationed in the South — a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War that ended with an armistice instead of a peace treaty.
Following an extended period of escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula, the Winter Olympics provided the catalyst for a sudden and very rapid rapprochement that resulted in the announcements of the planned summits.
Those announcements were made by the South Koreans, who have been orchestrating the diplomatic preparations and acting as the messenger between Washington and Pyongyang.
Trump’s administration is pushing ahead with plans for a summit before the end of May, but North Korea has yet to independently confirm it even extended an invitation to leadership talks — maintaining a silence that has raised some concerns in Washington and Seoul.
According to the South Korean envoy who met with Kim in Pyongyang, the North Korean leader also offered to consider abandoning his nuclear weapons in exchange for US security guarantees and flagged a halt to all missile and nuclear tests while dialogue was under way.
Kim Byung-yeon, an expert in North Korea’s economy at Seoul National University, said the ever-growing layer of sanctions on the North was pushing its regime to negotiations.
“With the economic damages caused by the sanctions growing ... the North seems to have come forward for talks to curb potential frustration among its people,” he said.
“I think the North will show more sincerity in upcoming negotiations than before,” he said.
The North-South summit — to be held at the border truce village of Panmunjom next month — will be the third summit between the two neighbors who remain technically at war.
The summit, if realized, will be an opportunity to test Kim’s willingness for nuclear disarmament demanded by the US, said Cheong Seong-chang, analyst at Sejong Institute think tank.
“It will be the first opportunity for the international community to gauge Kim’s intention and stance on the nuclear and missile arsenal before the Trump-Kim summit,” Cheong said.


Trump's missile treaty pullout could escalate tension with China

Updated 2 min 42 sec ago
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Trump's missile treaty pullout could escalate tension with China

WASHINGTON: A U.S. withdrawal from a Cold War-era nuclear arms treaty with Russia could give the Pentagon new options to counter Chinese missile advances but experts warn the ensuing arms race could greatly escalate tensions in the Asia-Pacific.
U.S. officials have been warning for years that the United States was being put at a disadvantage by China's development of increasingly sophisticated land-based missile forces, which the Pentagon could not match thanks to the U.S. treaty with Russia.
President Donald Trump has signaled he may soon give the Pentagon a freer hand to confront those advances, if he makes good on threats to pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which required elimination of short- and intermediate-range nuclear and conventional missiles.
Dan Blumenthal, a former Pentagon official now at the American Enterprise Institute, said a treaty pullout could pave the way for the United States to field easier-to-hide, road-mobile conventional missiles in places like Guam and Japan.
That would make it harder for China to consider a conventional first strike against U.S. ships and bases in the region. It could also force Beijing into a costly arms race, forcing China to spend more on missile defenses.
"It will change the picture fundamentally," Blumenthal said.
Even as Trump has blamed Russian violations of the treaty for his decision, he has also pointed a finger at China. Beijing was not party to the INF treaty and has been fielding new and more deadly missile forces.
These include China's DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM), which has a maximum range of 4,000 km (2,500 miles) and which the Pentagon says can threaten U.S. land and sea-based forces as far away as the Pacific island of Guam. It was first fielded in 2016.
"If Russia is doing it (developing these missiles) and China is doing it and we're adhering to the agreement, that's unacceptable," Trump said on Sunday.
John Bolton, White House national security advisor, noted that recent Chinese statements suggest it wanted Washington to stay in the treaty.
"And that's perfectly understandable. If I were Chinese, I would say the same thing," he told the Echo Moskvy radio station. "Why not have the Americans bound, and the Chinese not bound?"

GROWING THREAT
U.S. officials have so far relied on other capabilities as a counter-balance to China, like missiles fired from U.S. ships or aircraft. But advocates for a U.S. land-based missile response say that is the best way to deter Chinese use of its muscular land-based missile forces.
Kelly Magsamen, who helped craft the Pentagon's Asian policy under the Obama administration, said China's ability to work outside of the INF treaty had vexed policymakers in Washington, long before Trump came into office.
But she cautioned that any new U.S. policy guiding missile deployments in Asia would need to be carefully coordinated with allies, something that does not appear to have happened yet.
Mismanagement of expectations surrounding a U.S. treaty pullout could also unsettle security in the Asia-Pacific, she cautioned.
"It's potentially destabilizing," she said.
Experts warn that China would put pressure on countries in the region to refuse U.S. requests to position missiles there.
Abraham Denmark, a former senior Pentagon official under Obama, said Guam, Japan and even Australia were possible locations for U.S. missile deployments.
"But there are a lot of alliance questions that appear at first glance to be very tricky," he cautioned.
Still, current and former U.S. officials say Washington is right to focus on China's missile threat. Harry Harris, who led U.S. military forces in the Pacific before becoming U.S. ambassador to Seoul, said earlier this year that the United States was at a disadvantage.
"We have no ground-based (missile) capability that can threaten China because of, among other things, our rigid adherence ... to the treaty," Harris told a Senate hearing in March, without calling for the treaty to be scrapped.
Asked about Trump's comments, China's foreign ministry said a unilateral U.S. withdrawal would have a negative impact and urged the United States to "think thrice before acting."
"Talking about China on the issue of unilaterally pulling out of the treaty is completely mistaken," spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.