South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo said at a parliamentary defense committee meeting Tuesday that the defense chiefs of the United States and South Korea will make an announcement sometime between March 18, when the Paralympic Games are scheduled to end, and before April about joint military drills. He went on to say that the two countries agreed to maintain the neither confirm nor deny (NCND) stance before the announcement is made. Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon said at the parliamentary legislation and judiciary committee that the military authorities of the two countries are in negotiations on resuming the military drills and he has no plan to oppose to the plan.
The answers given by the two ministers make one wonder whether the two countries are willing to resume the drills. Last month, Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump agreed to postpone the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises, which take place every March, until after the Olympics. Therefore, it is our common sense that the drills be held after the end of March, when the “Olympics Truce” ends, or at least in early April. But according to Minister Song, it is uncertain whether the two countries will have joint drills. Although Minister Song said it is not true that the South Korean government is not being specific about the date of the joint drills because of North Korea, it is doubtful why it cannot reveal the schedule.
To be sure, it is understandable that Seoul is concerned about undermining the “peaceful Olympic” atmosphere by announcing the date of the joint military drills. Strategic vagueness can be a tactic the government can use so that the seemingly thawing relations between the two Koreas will lead to the resumption of talks between North Korea and the United States. But not revealing the exact date of the exercises is one thing, and being unclear about if South Korea and the United States will resume the joint military exercises is another. The government’s attitude can give a wrong signal to North Korea. North Korean newspaper Rodong Sinmun threatened that “The peace on the Korean Peninsula depends on whether the United States suspends its war practices.” It seems that North Korea is already considering suspension of the joint military drills as its bargaining chip.
The problem does not stop here. The South Korean government’s ambiguous attitude has brought about arguments, such as simultaneous suspension of North Korea’s nuclear provocations and joint military drills by South Korea and the United States or cutting the United States’ strategic military assets in South Korea. Against this backdrop, Tokyo presumptuously urged that Seoul and Washington should start the joint military drills “as planned.” It is worrisome if there are any cracks in alliance surrounding the joint military drills. The commander of United States Forces Korea Vincent Brooks said in the report recently submitted to the parliament that Ulchi Freedom Guardian and Key Resolve, the two largest command post exercises, and Foal Eagle are essential in order to strengthen the alliance's deterrence posture against North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats. Defense Minister Song said Tuesday that the alliance doesn't have "even 1 millimeter of error." But is that so? Or should we wait until the end of March to see what happens?