North Korea may have successfully bluffed its way into getting the US to stop holding massive army drills with South Korea's army.
According to the FT, South Korea has politely asked the US to "delay" joint military exercises until after the Winter Olympics, in order to lower the chances that North Korea takes provocative actions during the Pyeongchang Games, which Seoul wants to use to showcase the country’s development. The unexpected request means that Seoul will want to postpone the start of the annual spring exercises — called Key Resolve/Foal Eagle — until after the Paralympics, which end on March 18. And since the FT's sources said the US was likely to accept the request, it means that Pyongyang has just succeeded in getting the US to bend to its demands that the US and South Korea stop conducting army drills on its border for at least three months.
In many ways a de-escalation in military tensions, whether won by Seoul's clever diplomatic maneuvering which hopes to avoid a mushroom cloud in the middle of its games due to an errant Trump tweet, is a welcome development. Earlier this month, HR McMaster, US national security adviser, said the potential for war with North Korea was “increasingly every day” after Pyongyang last month tested the Hwasong 15, a long-range missile capable of hitting the east cost of the US — a move that came two months after it conducted its sixth, and most powerful, nuclear test.
Others agreed: Sue Mi Terry, Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the FT it was understandable that Seoul would want a delay since it was “very worried” about the Olympics. She said a postponement might also help create the conditions for talks, since it would reduce the chance of North Korea taking the kind of provocative actions that have, so far, closed off the possibility of serious negotiations with Washington.
Bruce Klingner, a Korea expert at the Heritage Foundation, said the move was prudent given the nature of the Kim regime. “Its neighbours are fearful that defensive exercises or a sports event would be used as an excuse for a provocation or deadly attack,” said Mr Klingner.
While it may be sound diplomacy, Seoul certainly has a right to be paranoid: “The fear is not unfounded since Pyongyang destroyed a civilian airliner in 1987 in an attempt to derail the 1988 Seoul Olympics” Klingner said.
The decision is also good commerce: Seoul is worried that the current tensions on the peninsula will cool demand for the Pyeongchang Olympics and Paralympics, particularly since ticket sales have been weak, and are about to get much weaker now that Russia has been effectrively banned. Another reason for poor ticket sales is that China has banned tour groups from visiting South Korea since March, because of a dispute over an American missile defence system that Seoul allowed the US to install in the country earlier this year.
But the real reason behind South Korea's request for the US to keep away may be far simpler: Seoul wants to rebuild bridges with its far more important, and closer neighbor, China.
One of the people familiar with the South Korean request said it was probably partly an effort to gain goodwill with China, in the hopes that Beijing would relax the travel restrictions. He added that China was looking for ways to restart de-nuclearisation talks, and that Beijing viewed some recent US actions, such as putting North Korea back on its list of state sponsors of terrorism, as an obstacle to those efforts.
“A delay in the exercise would be a prudent move to decrease tensions . . . as athletes and guests from around the global come to a South Korean city only 50 miles from the demilitarised zone,” said the person, who added that the need for major exercises was reduced because US and South Korean troops had done extensive training this year.
And since the US has yet to respond formally, there are two points of view: those who say a delay will not be a problem to the US, and obviously, an opposing camp who claim that such a delay would be risk.
Don Manzullo, president of the Korea Economic Institute in Washington, said that as long as the decision to delay the exercises was acceptable to US forces in Korea, there was “no reason why the exercises should not take place after the Olympics”.
But Evan Medeiros of Eurasia Group said delaying the exercises was a “very risky” move. “On the one hand, you want to work with your South Korean ally but, on the other hand, this dangerously validates North Korea’s claim that the exercises are a source of tension,” said Mr Medeiros, who was Barack Obama’s top Asia adviser. “The next step could be to shrink the exercises or cancel them all together.”
Such an outcome would be delightful to North Korea... and also China, which previously proposed a “freeze-for-freeze” arrangement where the US and South Korea would halt their joint military exercises in exchange for North Korea agreeing to stop missile and nuclear tests.
While Washington has rejected that idea on the grounds that it would just give North Korea more time to keep developing its weapons programmes, using an optical diversion like the Olympics to concede to China and in the process de-escalate substantially, may be just what US generals quietly desire.
As the FT notes, the South Korean request comes as Joe Yun, the state department envoy for North Korea, is visiting Japan and Thailand for talks over the crisis on the Korean peninsula. General Vincent Brooks, the top US commander in South Korea, travelled to Washington last week to provide Congress with a classified briefing on North Korea.
Now if only Kim Jong-Un wouldn't immediately launch an ICBM to celebrate this indirect US retreat, the de-escalation might have some chance of actually holding.