BY JULIAN RYALL
TOKYO, Japan — The South Korean government announced on Feb. 9 that a live-fire drill involving U.S. troops’ Apache attack helicopters at a firing range in the south-east of the Korean peninsula was being suspended due to complaints about the noise from local residents.
More than 2,800 people living close to the range, outside the city of Pohang, filed a petition demanding that the exercise be canceled and that the facility be permanently closed down due to the noise and vibrations caused by live-fire drills.
There was a mediation process between the Korean Defense Ministry and local residents, but the government of left-leaning President Moon Jae-in has previously been keen to cancel military maneuvers in an effort to woo the regime in Pyongyang. Former President Donald J. Trump was also quick to cancel joint U.S.-South Korean drills, on the grounds that they were expensive and because he believed he would win concessions from Kim Jong-un.
All three major joint exercises — Key Resolve, Foal Eagle and Ulchi Freedom Guardian — were cancelled in 2019 after Trump offered them as a sweetener to Kim at their first summit in Singapore. As a result, the last time the two allies have conducted large-scale field training was in 2018.
For military leaders and analysts, that situation is far from ideal and leaves South Korea and U.S. forces stationed there significantly less capable of dealing with any military emergency that might crop up.
U.S. Forces Korea Commander General Robert Abrams expressed concern in talks in January with a senior South Korean government that joint exercises designed to protect the South have contracted to the point that they are merely “computer games” that do little to prepare troops or their officers for the reality of battle, the Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported.
The report suggested that Abrams and his Korean counterpart agreed that the two nations will find it difficult to maintain their defensive capabilities if they never train together.
That position was echoed by Gen. Vincent Brooks, the former commander of U.S. forces in Korea between April 2016 and November 2018, in an interview with The Korea Times in February.
“Exercises have continued with adjusted scope, scale, timing and communication volume. They must continue to ensure the readiness of the alliance,” Brooks said. “Military readiness is essential to deterrence signaling and being able to take risks during periods of negotiations,” he added. “I believe the Joe Biden administration will recognize the value of readiness and will question the value of halting training.”
That position does appear to be endorsed in Washington D.C., with Pentagon press secretary John Kirby responding to a question in a briefing by saying, “We recognize the value of training and exercises to keep forces ready, and no place is that more important than on the Korean Peninsula.”
South Korea, however, still seems wedded to the idea that North Korea can be convinced to scrap its nuclear weapons and arsenal of ballistic missiles. In addition to wanting to provide large-scale economic assistance to Pyongyang, the government in Seoul is doing everything in its power to avoid movements that could be interpreted by the North — rightly or wrongly — as provocative.
During his confirmation hearings before the Korean parliament on Feb. 4, Foreign Minister Chung Eul-yong commented on the “various implications” of large scale joint military drills and warned that any such maneuvers could derail efforts to resume stalled denuclearisation discussions with Pyongyang.
Asked directly whether it was “inevitable” that regular combined drills scheduled to take place in the spring would be at least scaled back, Chung said “Yes,” but partly as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Taking the pandemic into account as well, the military authorities of South Korea and the U.S. are closely consulting over how to stage the exercise,” he said. One option, it is understood, is another computer-based simulation.
Garren Mulloy, a professor of international relations at Japan’s Daito Bunka University and an authority on defense issues, said it is clear that the militaries of both the US and South Korea want the drills to resume as quickly as possible, although senior Korean officers are unable to wade into the political issues that underpin the issue.
“It’s not just a question of holding the exercises to improve the capabilities of the units involved, it’s also a problem if they get into the habit of repeatedly cancelling the drills as we could quite quickly get to the point where it is difficult to stage these sorts of events,” Mulloy told the Journal.
He pointed out that any effort to resume the exercises will inevitably be seized upon by North Korea as evidence that the US has hostile intent towards Pyongyang and that it is plotting an invasion of the North. That is “pure propaganda,” Mulloy said, but it does support Kim’s narrative surrounding the need for his regime to have nuclear weapons and long-range missiles to defend itself.
“On the ground, troops that do not exercise regularly lose the knack of being effective in their tasks, and that then spreads throughout the command structure,” he said. “It’s not just about putting tactics into place to best fight a war; it is also about the smaller-scale things that field commanders will inevitably come up against — such as traffic jams and backlogs in supplies — that can only be effectively tested and then learned from in the field.”
Mulloy also said that while the U.S/ and South Korea have effectively put all field exercises on hold, the North has made no comparable concessions.
The Korean People’s Army marked the 73rd anniversary of its founding on Feb. 8 and is “continuing wintertime exercises,” a spokesman for the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a media briefing on Feb. 9. The exercises include live-fire artillery practices and tank exercises, including river-fording maneuvers. mbj