American-South Korean war games have a global audience

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This week, South Korea and the United States began several massive live-fire military drills for the first time in several years in a clear signal to Pyongyang. Known collectively as the Ulchi Freedom Shield exercises, they will flex the military muscles of both allies at sea, in the air, on land and in space. Lasting until September 1, the exercises will also have a significant cyber component.

I’ve been involved in these war games many times, dating back to my early days at sea in the Pacific serving in an anti-submarine destroyer. Over the years, their pace and scope have increased, involving hundreds of ships, tanks, planes, satellites and tens of thousands of troops. They are among the most demanding of any American exercise in the world.

As in years past, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un vehemently condemned the drills, describing them as rehearsals for an invasion and making them the centerpiece of the defense of his illegal nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. But the United States also has other reasons beyond Kim’s bluster to signal its ironclad commitment to its treaty ally. This year’s version of the exercises comes at a particularly difficult time. In East Asia, US-China tensions are peaking over Taiwan, and new governments have taken office in US allies Japan, South Korea and Australia. This comes against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and in the aftermath of the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan, which has raised questions about the credibility of the United States and its willingness to meet its commitments. .

Kim had been relatively calm during the two years of the pandemic, which also coincided with a downgrading of US-ROK live-fire exercises by the administration of President Donald Trump, whose attempts at personal diplomacy produced no results. concrete in terms of denuclearization. Now, not only is Kim likely missing the international notoriety he had gained over those years, but North Korea is also facing increasing pressure from a combination of international sanctions, the pandemic and global inflation.

So speculation is growing in Washington and Seoul that Kim may be using the drills to justify another nuclear test, something he hasn’t done since the sixth such event in September 2017. Kim is also looking to ingratiate himself with the Kremlin in pledging military support and guest workers to Russian invading forces in Ukraine. In response, the South Koreans will introduce a civil defense training program that will educate civilians to respond to an attack and provide logistical support to their military.

Ulchi Freedom Shield will also use lessons that militaries around the world are learning from events in Ukraine: the importance of advanced drones, civil-military cooperation, air defense against attacks on critical infrastructure, and vulnerabilities in tanks and more. armored vehicles if deployed without sufficient combined arms support. Above all, the United States and South Korea want to test their logistical capabilities, which have been so lacking in Russian forces in Crimea.

In the past, these exercises have included 200,000 South Korean soldiers and a significant part of the approximately 30,000 American troops based on the peninsula. Significant elements of the US 7th Fleet, based in Japan, and associated amphibious ships from nearby Sasebo, Japan, will be deployed for the war games.

Two other recent developments also increase the importance and profile of exercises. The first is the election of the most conservative and pro-defense government in recent South Korean history, led by newly inaugurated President Yoon Suk Yeol. Seoul’s new administration has promised big defense increases, the acquisition of new military technologies and greater military cooperation with the United States and other Western allies in the region.

The second important element is Kim’s abrupt rejection of a pacifist from Seoul. The South Koreans had offered a sweeping proposal of economic benefits in return for denuclearization (not quite unlike the package presented by Washington under President Trump). The South has promised food, agricultural aid, health infrastructure and other benefits – but has not addressed the crippling sanctions under which North Koreans chafe. In her role as North Korea’s public spokesperson, Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, contemptuously denounced the offer as “stupid”. She then blamed the Covid-19 outbreaks in the north on South Korea and promised “deadly retaliation”.

The DPRK continues at a record pace with major missile tests – over 30 and growing, more than any other year. Of particular note is North Korea’s launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile for the first time in five years. North Korea and South Korea are on a collision course, and the spark that could heighten already high tensions are both the drills, but also the potential nuclear test.

The United States must therefore continue to stand firmly with the South Koreans, and not just to meet its treaty obligations. Although US support for Ukraine has mitigated some of the damage to US credibility caused by its withdrawal from Kabul, its behavior is being watched closely. Our NATO partners are watching events in the Pacific as they decide how strongly they should support American leadership over Ukraine during the cold winter ahead. So will President Xi Jinping of China, as he calculates his next move in Taiwan. Much depends on the success of these exercises – with consequences that will reverberate far beyond the peninsula.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Falling number of Chinese students in the US is a bad sign: Adam Minter

• The four mysteries of Pelosi’s disturbing trip to Taiwan: Niall Ferguson

• China started making the same mistakes as the Soviets: Hal Brands

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A retired Admiral of the United States Navy, former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO and Dean Emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, he is vice president of global affairs for the Carlyle Group. He is the most recent author of “To Risk It All: Nine Conflicts and the Crucible of Decision”.

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