Annual United States-South Korea joint military exercises are underway. The exercises are intended both to prepare for a potential invasion of the South by North Korea and to maintain and strengthen the allied forces' combined operational effectiveness.
In most years, the exercises run for about two months from the end of February or the beginning of March. This year, however, the thaw in North-South relations prompted the exercises to be rescheduled for after the recent Pyeongchang Winter Games. The maneuvers will also run for about a month instead of the usual two, and U.S. aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines and strategic bombers will likely not participate. This presents quite a different picture from the situation last year, when the U.S. deployed aircraft carriers and other heavy-hitting strategic assets to the region to put pressure on the Pyongyang regime.
It appears likely that Washington and Seoul are dialing back the scale of the maneuvers to the minimum with two landmark leaders' summits in mind: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's April 27 meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and Kim's tete-a-tete with U.S. President Donald Trump, expected before the end of May.
Last month, Kim is said to have communicated his "understanding" of the South Korea-U.S. exercises to Seoul's special envoy, and indeed Pyongyang has shown no signs of reacting to the maneuvers. This suggests that North Korea is putting the coming talks with the U.S. first and exercising self-restraint.
At one point, some in the South had suggested delaying the military exercises again out of respect for the coming talks. However, military pressure can be said to play an important role in diplomatic negotiations. In a situation where no clear path to a diplomatic goal is visible, it does not pay to constantly change plans.
The U.S.-South Korea military maneuvers were canceled once, in 1992, when Pyongyang indicted it would accept United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections. However, in the end this did nothing to halt North Korea's nuclear weapons development program.
Kim has used the term "denuclearization," and has signed up for talks with South Korea, the U.S. and China. Compared to the repeated military provocations of the past, this is obviously a much better state of affairs.
At present, however, it is difficult to say there has been any change regarding the North's nuclear and missile programs. The diplomatic environment has certainly improved, but it is still impossible to know whether Kim will back his words with deeds. Until Pyongyang makes concrete moves to denuclearize, it is impossible to ease back on both military and economic pressure on North Korea. Considering how things have gone in the past, this is a basic rule of negotiating with the North that cannot be neglected.
North Korea must act if we are ever to get to the point where cancelling the U.S.-South Korea military exercises can be discussed.