Joint Drill Must Resume After the Olympics
The government is already losing its nerve over the resumption of joint military exercises with the U.S., which have been postponed till after the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. Asked when the drills will be held, a Defense Ministry spokesman told reporters on Monday the ministry will "make a comment at an appropriate time." Asked the same question, a Cheong Wa Dae official said, "Nothing has been decided yet." Late last month, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff said the annual exercises will resume "immediately after the Olympics," and the Defense Ministry here concurred. But now the government is going weak in the knees after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un invited President Moon Jae-in to Pyongyang.
Seoul and the U.S. agreed in early January to postpone the drills. The White House said at the time that the postponement was aimed at avoiding conflict with the Olympics. Pressed by lawmakers on Feb. 5 if the drill will take place after the Winter Olympics end, Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon said they were only postponed because of the games, which suggested that they can be held once the Olympics are over. But now it cannot even bring itself to mention the matter.
It is wise diplomacy to leave options open, but not where national security is concerned. Rather, any hint of a weakness could leave the government in big trouble. This was demonstrated during the fiasco over the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system last year, when the government tried to appease the U.S. and China at the same time and ended up losing the trust of both sides. The government may be thinking about postponing the drills further, or even halting them while this false honeymoon with North Korea lasts. President Moon Jae-in told NBC News in December that he would consider postponing the exercises for the Winter Olympics to "ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula." Does he have the necessary resolve to go through with them?
The U.S. and South Korea both want North Korea to scrap its nuclear weapons. Once the North expresses willingness to scrap its nuclear weapons and comes to the dialogue table, then the option of downscaling the drill could be put on the table. But if Seoul makes concessions without such a pledge, it will only give the North time to strengthen its nuclear arsenal. What will happen when the U.S. loses patience does not bear thinking about. In the early 1990s, Seoul and Washington agreed to halt joint drills after accepting Pyongyang's pledge to scrap its nuclear weapons program and freeze its nuclear plants. Everyone knows what happened next. The exercises stand at the center of the Seoul-Washington alliance. One former U.S. Forces Korea commander warned the alliance could be "destroyed" if Seoul seeks to halt the joint drills.
Kim Jong-un may have nuclear weapons, but he finds himself cornered, otherwise he would not have sent his own sister to South Korea to launch a charm offensive. Any dialogue with North Korea must be accompanied by maximum pressure. If not, Kim will think he can dodge international sanctions despite holding on to his nukes.