I have been involved in these war games many times, beginning in my earliest days at sea in the Pacific when I served on a submarine destroyer. Over the years they have increased in pace and scope, encompassing hundreds of ships, tanks, planes, satellites and tens of thousands of soldiers. They are among the most demanding of all US exercises in the world.
As in years past, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has vocally condemned the exercises, portraying them as rehearsals for an invasion and making them a core defense of his illegal nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. But the US has reasons other than Kim’s rampage to signal its ironclad commitment to its treaty partner. This year’s version of the exercises comes at a particularly tense time. In East Asia, tensions between the US and China are peaking in Taiwan, and new governments have taken office in US allies Japan, South Korea and Australia. This comes against the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and after the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan, which has raised questions about US credibility and willingness to honor its commitments.
Kim had been relatively quiet during the two years of the pandemic, which also coincided with a downgrade of US-ROK live-fire drills by President Donald Trump’s administration, whose attempts at personal diplomacy have yielded no concrete results regarding the North denuclearization. Now, not only is Kim likely to miss the international prominence he’s garnered over those years, but North Korea is facing increasingly worse pressures from a combination of international sanctions, the pandemic and global inflation.
As a result, speculation is mounting in Washington and Seoul that Kim could be using the drills to justify another nuclear test, something he has not done since the sixth such event in September 2017. Kim is also trying to ingratiate himself with the Kremlin by pledging military support and migrant workers to the Russian invading forces in Ukraine. In response, the South Koreans will unveil a civil defense training program that will include training civilians to respond to an attack and providing logistical support to their military.
Ulchi Freedom Shield will also share the lessons that militaries worldwide are learning from the events in Ukraine: the importance of advanced drones, civil-military cooperation, air defenses against attacks on critical infrastructure, and the vulnerabilities of tanks and other armored vehicles when deployed combined armrests are not used sufficiently. Most importantly, both the US and South Korea want to test their logistical capabilities, which Russian forces so lack in Crimea.
In the past, these exercises had involved 200,000 South Korean troops and a significant portion of the nearly 30,000 US troops stationed on the peninsula. Significant elements of the US 7th Fleet based in Japan and associated amphibious ships based out of nearby Sasebo, Japan will be deployed to the War Games.
Two other recent developments also increase the importance and profile of the exercises. The first is the election of the most conservative and pro-defence government in recent South Korean history, led by incumbent President Yoon Suk Yeol. The new Seoul government has pledged to heavily strengthen defenses, acquire new military technologies, and increase military cooperation with the US and other Western allies in the region.
The second important element is Kim’s abrupt rejection of a peace feeler from Seoul. The South Koreans had put forward a sweeping proposal for economic benefits in exchange for denuclearization (not entirely different from the package Washington put forward under President Trump). The South promised food, agricultural aid, health infrastructure and other benefits — but didn’t address the crippling sanctions North Koreans are chafing under. In her role as North Korea’s public spokesperson, Kim’s sister Kim Yo Jong scorned the offer as “stupid.” She blamed South Korea for the Covid-19 outbreaks in the north and promised “deadly retribution”.
DPRK continues record pace of major missile tests – over 30 and counting, more than any other year. Of particular note is North Korea’s launch of an ICBM for the first time in five years. North and South Korea are on a collision course, and the spark that could add to already high tensions are both the drills and the possible nuclear test.
The US must therefore continue to offer strong support to the South Koreans, and not just to honor their treaty obligations. Although US support for Ukraine has mitigated some of the damage done to US credibility by the withdrawal from Kabul, its behavior is being closely monitored. Our NATO partners are following events in the Pacific as they decide how much support they want to give to the US leadership in Ukraine in the cold winter ahead. The same goes for Chinese President Xi Jinping planning his next move regarding Taiwan. Much depends on the successful conduct of these exercises, with ramifications that will reach well beyond the peninsula.
More from the Bloomberg Opinion:
• The decline in Chinese students in the US is a bad sign: Adam Minter
• The Four Mysteries of Pelosi’s Pesky Taiwan Trip: Niall Ferguson
• China has started making the same mistakes as the Soviets: Hal Brands
This column does not necessarily represent the opinion of the editors or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
James Stavridis is a columnist for the Bloomberg Opinion. A retired US Navy admiral, former Commander-in-Chief Allied NATO and Dean Emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, he is Vice Chair of Global Affairs at The Carlyle Group. Most recently, he is the author of To Risk It All: Nine Conflicts and the Crucible of Decision.
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