Aletho News


US-South Korean Ulchi Freedom Shield military exercises raises alarms in Pyongyang

By Ahmed Adel | August 25, 2022

South Korea and the United States began the joint Ulchi Freedom Shield (UFS) military exercises on August 22, resuming large-scale field training after a four-year pause. Following the Singapore summit in 2018 between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and then US President Donald Trump, joint land exercises were cancelled and the scale of the UFS exercises was significantly reduced. However, with US President Joe Biden in power and the consequential destabilisation because of Washington’s desperate attempt to maintain a unipolar order, these exercises have resumed.  

Trump tried to convince Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons program as a shield to ensure its security. An important basis for this US decision was the policy of then-South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who actively established dialogue with North Korea. Incumbent President of South Korea Yoon Suk-yeol has reviewed inter-Korean relations and promised to carry out regular military drills and strengthen his country’s missile defence capabilities. As a result, South Korea fully resumed joint military exercises with the US.

Western media reported that this year’s UFS exercise includes a series of drills in specific hypothetical situations, modelled on an all-out war, simulating joint attacks, as well as operations such as supplying weapons and fuel to the front, and moving weapons of mass destruction. In the past, the US and South Korea mobilised tens of thousands of troops and a large number of aircraft, warships and tanks to participate in similar exercises. 

According to a shared statement, South Korea and the US are holding these drills in response to North Korea, which has increased the number and scale of missile tests over the past year. North Korea is not a credible threat to the US though and is unlikely to attack South Korea unprovoked, meaning that their missile tests are a demonstration of its defensive capabilities. 

North Korea traditionally views joint US-South Korean military exercises as preparations for an invasion, a legitimate concern since it was the US who internationalised the Korean Civil War that has kept the peninsula divided ever since.  

The joint US-South Korean military exercises are sure to provoke an outraged response from Pyongyang. Although Pyongyang can limit itself to harsh rhetoric, the recent cruise missile launches are a pre-emptive response to the US-South Korean military drills. In general, the provocative exercises have pushed tensions to a new level.

At the meeting on August 9 in the Chinese city of Qingdao, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his South Korean counterpart Park Jin exchanged views on the latest situation on the Korean Peninsula and how to resolve tensions. At that time, the date and scope of the UFS exercise were announced. It is possible that this caused the Chinese side to voice their concerns about the US-South Korea exercise plan and the possible impact it can have on stability in Northeast Asia. 

After the talks, the South Korean minister asked Beijing to play a constructive role in persuading Pyongyang to choose dialogue over a military response. At the same time, Park Jin acknowledged that peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula is facing unprecedented challenges, but without acknowledging this was at his own country’s behest as it continually invites a non-regional actor to interfere in affairs. 

For his part, Wang Yi called Pyongyang and Seoul as the two real masters of the Korean peninsula, making it clear that China expects South Korea to make responsible decisions regarding bilateral relations and without outside influence. But, this year’s UFS military exercise shows that Seoul is not ready to act confidently and independently.

It appears that the current US-influenced South Korean government is incapable of managing the security situation on the Korean peninsula. This concerns China as it already faces US provocations regarding Taiwan and it does not want another major flashpoint opened on its border.

The North Korean government regularly asks China to play a constructive role. South Korean leaders are well aware that, in fact, China is the only country with some kind of leverage and influence over Pyongyang. In general, Yoon Suk-yeol’s administration does not want to increase confrontation with China, but at the same time acts as a US lackey towards North Korea.

Yoon Suk-yeol tried to avoid trouble and repeatedly reassured that South Korea’s participation in some American initiatives was not directed against China. South Korea wants to join US economic initiatives, but this always comes at a price of serving American geopolitical interests. 

During his talks with his South Korean counterpart, Wang Yi affirmed that China supports the improvement of North-South relations, adheres to a two-way phased approach, and promotes denuclearisation and building a peace mechanism on the peninsula. 

But just because Chinese concerns may be acknowledged, it does not mean that North Korea feels anymore relaxed about the provocative exercises. In fact, given the context of the US instigating war in Ukraine and attempting to destabilise the Taiwan Straits, Pyongyang has very legitimate concerns with Washington’s intentions on the Korean peninsula. 

Ahmed Adel is a Cairo-based geopolitics and political economy researcher.

August 25, 2022 - Posted by | Militarism | , , ,

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