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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Asia > North East Asia > Korean Peninsula > U.S.-ROK Military Exercises

U.S.-ROK Military Exercises

Daniel Pinkston, Strong and Prosperous 2011: Crisis Group's Blog on Korea  |   7 Mar 2011

The U.S. and South Korea have begun two combined military exercises. Key Resolve, a command post exercise that mostly involves computer simulations, officially began 28 February and is scheduled to last 11 days.  Foal Eagle, a field exercise, also began on 28 February and will last until late April. The exercises drew the usual condemnation from North Korean authorities, as well as from some Chinese pundits and some South Korean dissident groups. The United Nations Command informed the KPA of the exercise schedule on 15 February and described them as “defensive in nature and routine”.

On 27 February, the KPA representative to Panmunjŏm issued a statement declaring,  “the exercises are aimed to ‘destroy’ the system of the DPRK” and therefore,  “its army and people will go into an all-out offensive to put an end to the U.S. imperialists’ military occupation of south Korea and the anti-popular ruling system of the group of traitors”.

One reason the KPA is upset with the exercises is that Pyongyang must respond when they would rather focus resources on the economy as the leadership has promised the DPRK will become a “strong and prosperous country” by 15 April 2012. DPRK complaints about U.S.-ROK exercises are legendary, and shrill rhetoric threatening retaliation is routine. Pyongyang’s displeasure dates back to the Korean War. In 1954, former UN Command CINC Gen. Mark Clark wrote that UN forces conducted large-scale amphibious landing exercises during the two years of the “talking war” (the last two years of the three-year conflict when the two sides had reached a stalemate near the 38th parallel). Clark said they prepared for the exercises in Japan well in advance and talked about them over unsecure telephones knowing that DPRK and PRC intelligence would “discover” their plans. However, the KPA and Chinese People’s Volunteers (CPV) did not know whether the exercises were rehearsals or the real thing. UNC vessels and aircraft simulated invasions, but would stop just out of KPA and CPV artillery range. Clark wrote that U.S. intelligence found out it “drove them crazy”.

While the threat of an actual U.S.-ROK invasion or attack during Key Resolve and Foal Eagle arguably is not credible (we believe an unprovoked U.S.-ROK attack or invasion are virtually impossible), the KPA must mobilise and divert resources that they’d rather allocate to Stakhanovite type campaigns in their effort to become “strong and prosperous”. Regardless of the exercises, the economic goals for 2012 are doomed to fail, but the “hostile policy” of the United States—as “proven by the exercises” from Pyongyang’s perspective—will be one scapegoat to relieve the leadership of accountability for its poor policy choices. Meanwhile, the ROK military is cutting back some training and is reducing the permissible number of hot showers and baths because of budget constraints at a time of rising fuel and food costs.                

The KPA is particularly upset this year because, according to its Panmunjŏm spokesman, “Key Resolve and Foal Eagle are aimed at the removal of the DPRK’s nuclear weapons and missiles,” and therefore, “its army and people will counter the nuclear blackmail by the aggressors with our own nuclear deterrent and their missile threat with our own missile striking method”. The spokesman also declared “the army and people would respond with a bolstered nuclear deterrent of our own style for the continued nuclear threat by the aggressors and our own missile striking action for their vicious attempt to eliminate our missiles”.

The 27 February statement in English is awkward and raises questions about the “DPRK style nuclear deterrent.” KCNA could have done a better job on the translation; the original Korean is more clear. 

 “키 리졸브, 독수리 합동군사연습이 우리의 핵 및 미사일 제거를 노리는 이상 우리 군대와 인민은 침략자들의 핵공갈에는 우리 식의 핵억제력으로, 미사일 위협에는 우리 식의 미사일 타격전으로 맞서나갈  것이다.”

In other words, the spokesman asserted the KPA and North Korean people will respond to “nuclear blackmail or nuclear threats of any invaders with a ‘North Korean style’ nuclear deterrent”. Any “missile threat will face ‘North Korean style’ missile strikes”. However, the spokesman also declared, “Peace is of value to the DPRK. Detente is also what it steadily desires and needs”. Although we don’t know much about North Korean nuclear doctrine, according to this statement, the DPRK nuclear arsenal is to be used to deter an invasion of the DPRK. 

The WMD eradication component of the exercises is led by the 20th Support Command (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and High Yield Explosives) based at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. The Command was activated on 16 October 2004 under the U.S. Army Forces Command, but the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review provided for the expansion of the Command into a joint entity through the establishment of the Joint Task Force for Elimination of Weapons of Mass Destruction (JTF-E).

The JTF-E conducted its first major overseas training in August 2007 during the U.S.-ROK Ulchi Focus Lens combined exercise. In 2005, the Combined Forces Command (CFC) and U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) recognised the need to establish and train a WMD elimination task force, but the assessment of the 2007 exercise was that “CFC ground components lack the specialized teams, equipment, and expertise necessary to exploit the potentially large number of WMD sites in North Korea”.

Combined WMD-elimination training was conducted again in 2009 with about 150 American specialists deployed from the U.S., and in 2010 about 350 Americans were deployed for the exercise. The number of American participants is expected to be greater this year, but we do not have precise figures yet.

The ROK counterpart is the “ROK NBC Command (國軍化生放防護司令部)” which literally would be translated as “[ROK] National Military Chemical Biological and Radiological Defence Command”. The ROK NBC Command was established under a 2002 statute and is subordinate to the ROK Defence Minister. It has inter-agency agreements with other ROK agencies such as the Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety (韓國原子力安全技術院) to deal with nuclear accidents, nuclear terrorism or a nuclear attack.

The Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises in 2011 are designed to train for a number of scenarios whereby instability could be triggered in the DPRK and subsequently would require a combined military response. The scenarios include the demise of the Kim family and a coup d’état or civil war, a large-scale natural disaster, social unrest and rebellion, large-scale defections and out migration, WMD falling into the hands of rebel groups or commanders, or the taking of ROK hostages in the North (Kaesŏng Industrial Complex).

While there are no signs of instability in the North, economic scarcity is increasing internal rivalry, and fissures within the military or ruling elite could occur if the leadership miscalculates and embarks upon risky and adventurous provocations. ROK Defence Minister Kim Kwan-jin recently told the National Assembly that based on past patterns and behavior, he expects the DPRK to carry out some kind of provocation this spring. If the KPA conducts a provocation similar to the attacks against the Ch’ŏnan or Yŏnp’yŏng Island, they almost certainly will come under counter-fire. Such a counter-attack could escalate and trigger the implementation of OPLAN 5027 or OPLAN 5029 in worst case scenarios.      

 
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Strong and Prosperous 2011

This article first appeared as post on "Strong and Prosperous 2011", Crisis Group's blog on Korea.