Why North Korea hates ROK-US joint exercises so much — and how these drills could be even better for the alliance.
Spring is a season for cherry blossoms. However, for many of the 28,500 of American military personnel forward deploying in the Republic of Korea (ROK), this is the season for living in desolate bunkers. Every year, as winter gives way to spring, U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) and the ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff conduct annual combined military exercises Key Resolve and Foal Eagle. The command and field exercises elicit a steady barrage of North Korean vitriol, making this also a season for censure. Pyongyang propagandists produce variations on an old theme: that ‘U.S. imperialists and South Korean reactionaries’ are bringing the peninsula to the brink of nuclear war. North Korean missile launches are but the punctuation points of this disinformation campaign.Why does North Korea overreact to what the ROK-U.S. alliance sees as routine, annual defensive exercises? There are several reasons, and understanding them is crucial to deterring and dealing with North Korea.First, the exercises accentuate ROK power and capabilities, thereby highlighting North Korea’s relative vulnerabilities. The exercises showcase the advanced arsenal of the ROK and the relative obsolescence of North Korean conventional arms. In addition, military drills with a powerful ally, the United States, demonstrate the joint and combined arms capabilities of the alliance, further highlighting the North’s deteriorating conventional military strength.
Second, the annual military exercises impose considerable psychological pressure on the leadership of North Korea. The sheer fact that some 200,000 troops (almost one-third of the total strength) of the ROK military are placed on the highest level of alert and ready for combat becomes a necessary preoccupation for Kim Jong-un and his generals. Furthermore, U.S. and other international forces from Australia, the United Kingdom and elsewhere remind North Korea that any misdeeds will incur a serious reputational cost and staunch international response.
Third, the exercises exacerbate North Korea’s financial woes. The economic disparity between the two Koreas favors the South when it comes to funding a show of readiness and strength. Responding with an equal or greater show of force would mean a major setback to the North Korean economy. This explains North Korea’s asymmetric responses of missile launches, nuclear threats, and information warfare. But Pyongyang’s attempt at shock and rhetorical awe have become as routine as the alliance’s defensive exercises themselves.
Obviously, North Korea dreads the combined exercise. Pyongyang constantly demands the cancellation of the “drill aimed at invasion” and accuses the U.S.-ROK alliance of war-mongering and jeopardizing inter-Korean relations. Given this, how can the U.S.-ROK alliance make full use of the criticized exercise and better protect the more than 50 million civilians in South Korea? Key Resolve and Foal Eagle are designed to enable the alliance to defend the ROK from a full-scale attack by North Korea. Therefore, the exercise must be focused on identifying tasks (what to do) and coming up with solutions (how to do it). So what are the tasks and solutions?
The first task is bridging insufficient missile defense capability before additional defense systems — including the so-called Kill Chain and the Korea Air and Missile Defense system (KAMD) — are ready for deployment. It is crucial for both USFK and ROK military exercise planners to focus on defending ROK from threats posed by North Korean mobile TELs (Transportable Erector Launcher) and long-range artillery, which can be used to deliver nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons. One solution to this task is synchronizing the sensor with the shooter, meaning connecting USFK’s Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) with the long-range precision strike capability of ROK forces. In an effort to do so, target information acquired by the sensor must be delivered to the shooter as quickly as possible, which will require addressing interoperability issues between U.S. ISR assets and ROK precision strike assets.
A second task is preparing ROK forces for guerrilla warfare against North Korean Special Operation Forces teams in urban settings. Should a war breaks out, the North will be likely to insert small-scale SOF teams to harass rear areas with terrorist attacks and sabotage. In particular, it is likely that North Korea may have developed new doctrines and tactics in urban settings, derived from lessons learned from the recent guerrilla warfare of organizations such as the Islamic State. To handle this task, U.S. and ROK exercise planning authorities must analyze cases of urban terrorism by small units, derive lessons, develop doctrines tailored to urban guerrilla warfare, and incorporate such scenarios into the exercise.
A third task is promoting the safety awareness of the Korean public in combat situations, as well as preparing for the possibility of public evacuation. Most people living in the ROK, including foreign nationals, are not aware of where to evacuate, how to wear a gas mask, and how to provide first-aid when injured. If the public remains unaware of safety in war situations, the ROK may sustain mass civilian casualties, including foreign nationals, if Seoul comes under attack. In order to minimize civilian casualties, military exercise planners have to create an informative exercise for the public in close collaboration with schools, the private sector, and government organizations.
The U.S.-ROK combined exercises are a regular nightmare for North Korea, but they are also a great opportunity for the U.S.-ROK alliance to mitigate shortfalls in missile defense capabilities, develop skills for urban guerrilla warfare, and enhance the safety awareness of the public in war situations. This is a season for burnishing future capabilities to enhance deterrence and readiness should deterrence fail.
David Eunpyoung Jee is a Korea Foundation Associate Researcher of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. He previously served as a military officer at the operation center of Republic of Korea Joint Chiefs of Staff.