Military exercises with the US and the Republic of Korea (ROK) took place on April Fool's Day. But instead of being a trick, they were reality.
Before the military exercises, the heads of China and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) met. After the exercises, the leaders of the DPRK and the ROK will meet, and then the US and the DPRK. It is a sensitive moment to conduct these drills, and some worry that they will mar diplomacy on the Peninsula.
But there shouldn't be excessive concern, for this training will not fundamentally influence the Korean Peninsula.
Firstly, they are routine military exercises, a decision that was made before the improvement in the regional situation. Due to the Olympics, the postponement of the exercises for a month shows that consideration is being given to all sides.
Secondly, the ROK sent 300,000 troops and the US 12,000 troops. The exercises are focused more on defense rather than on attacking. There is a notable absence of US offensive weapons such as aircraft carriers and nuclear-powered attack submarines. The reduction in exercise numbers and aggressiveness shows that the two countries are trying to be more low-key.
Thirdly, both sides had communicated with each other before the military exercises took place. When the ROK special envoy visited the DPRK at the beginning of March, he informed Kim Jong Un that the US and the ROK would conduct military exercises. Kim Jong Un showed understanding and also joked that he felt sorry for keeping President Moon Jae-in awake at night as he launched missiles.
Considering the defensiveness of the military exercise, the communication between the US and the DPRK, and the amelioration of the general situation, the response of the DPRK will probably be condemnation and verbal criticism rather than the launching of a missile.
Some may ask, why did the US and the ROK insist on conducting the exercises if the situation has already become better? Are they not provoking the DPRK?
There are two reasons. First, the drills are part of a semi-annual routine. Second, President Trump believes that extreme pressure should be exerted on the DPRK to bring it back to the negotiating table. Although the DPRK had agreed, the US still decided to flex its military muscle. However, the act was kept to a lower profile in order to facilitate the peace talk process.
Therefore, the current situation on the Peninsula is very interesting. On one hand, there are military exercises with planes and cannons. On the other hand, there are Taekwondo and other ROK artistic performances in Pyongyang. Knowing when to use confrontation or condemnation is Kim Jong Un’s strong suit, and he will not let his impulsive or fleeting anger derail current developments.
The only thing to be worried about is whether the military exercises will cause accidents, like dropping a bomb on ROK or DPRK territory. If they do occur, controlling and managing the situation will test the diplomatic wisdom of all parties.
Such is the complexity of the current situation on the Peninsula. There might be a way out during a predicament or things may take a turn for the worse during positive developments. However, this chance to improve a longstanding regional issue has not come easily, so all sides should cherish it. Meanwhile, let’s keep our fingers crossed, hoping that there won’t be accidents.
The author is a senior fellow at the Charhar Institute.