Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, issued a statement on Sunday warning that joint military exercises between Seoul and Washington will be an unpleasant prelude and cloud the future of inter-Korean relations. She further claimed that there had been no discussion on the scale or format of joint exercises, saying the North will closely monitor whether the South will stage hostile war exercises or make a bolder decision, calling for a suspension or a halt of the joint drills. Such pressure came after a consensus has been built between South Korea and the United States that the two allies will cut the scale of the drills to the level of those in the first half this year.
Pyongyang’s pressure to cancel the annual military exercises was on the cards as the inter-Korean communication hotline was restored last week. The latest statement from the North is no surprise given that the joint drills are a perennial bone of contention for them; this time it was the South that ignited the fission. Merely three days after the restoration of hotline, a high-ranking official from the South Korean Unification Ministry made it official that Seoul considers it desirable to postpone the exercises. There is also a chance that the letters exchanged between the two Koreas served as a conduit of communication between the two heads of state.
Kim Yo Jong also cast doubts on the possibility of the fourth inter-Korean summit meeting, calling it “hasty,” adding making speculation and groundless interpretation will only lead to disappointment. After all, the restoration of hotline was nothing more than a bait for the South seeking to rebuild rapport. But the Unification Ministry was quick to bite the bait to announce postponement, prompting Pyongyang to fume and demand cancellation.
The government appears flustered after Kim’s statement was released. On Sunday, an official from the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae tried to shrug it off, saying nothing has been decided yet. Even leaders of the ruling party and the National Defense Commission weighed in, saying, “It must proceed as scheduled.” This not only reveals the internal discords in the South but lays bare the cacophony within the ruling party. The United States, the joint participant and the organizer of the joint drills, is casting doubts to its ally, keeping the stance that this is a matter that needs to be settled down between the two countries concerned.
Over the last three years, the ROK-US joint military drills have been reduced to command post exercises without maneuvers on a large scale. Already perfunctory, the joint drills might be terminated for good if canceled by Pyongyang’s demand. Military is a means for diplomacy; sometimes it requires flexibility. But even as we speak, the North is bent on producing and stocking up on nuclear materials, refusing to have any sort of denuclearization talks.