The Big Annual US-Korean Military Exercise this Month


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This month is the big annual joint exercise between US Forces in Korea and the Korean military, the army particularly. I talked about this on the radio this week; if you are curious for an introduction to US-Korean military cooperation, check the transcript below.

These drills have shrunk dramatically over the years, mostly in an attempt to bring around the North. Also, as Korea has gotten wealthier, environmental restrictions have made it increasingly difficult and politically unpopular to put a 100,000 people and tanks into the countryside. West Germans used to complain about this too in the 70s and 80s. Try to imagine what, say, 100 M1-A1 tanks would do to a river valley. They weigh 65 tons each! So increasingly these exercises are actually computerized wargame scenarios.

Anyway, these exercise are less and less about maneuver warfare (the old story for the North Korea army), and more and more about what to do if North Korea implodes (or explodes, or whatever – no one really knows). They big concern for the US is how to prevent NK WMD from either being launched or smuggled out. For the South, it is how to prevent NK civil war and army mutinies, to restore civil order, feed the NK population, and capture the party elite before they spring for China. And of course, lurking in the background, undiscussed by everyone and never properly accounted for in the wargaming, is what happens if the Chinese army, the PLA, pushes south and collides with us coming north. Yikes…

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TRANSCRIPT – DR. ROBERT E. KELLY, PUSAN NATIONAL UNIVERSITY

BUSAN E-FM: “MORNING WAVE”

MONDAYS, 8 AM

March 15, 2010

 

Petra:

Professor Kelly comes to us each Monday to talk about big issues in Korean foreign affairs. And this week we are going to discuss the big US-Korea military exercises last week. Hi, Dr. Kelly.

REK:

Hi, Petra. Thanks for having me

Petra:

 

Thanks for being with us again today.

REK:

 

It’s my pleasure.

Petra:

So last week there were these big Korea-US military drills. It seems like these are so common, we don’t pay attention to them much anymore

REK:

That’s right. They are pretty regularized now. They get a little bit in the news each year, but not much more. Politically the most interesting thing for Korea is not the US participation actually, but how North Korea responds each year.

Petra:

Don’t they usually say this is practice for an invasion?

REK:

That’s right. They always denounce it as imperialism, but the calm or anger of their denunciation tells us a little about what is going on in Pyongyang.

Petra:

 

And this year they didn’t seem to say much.

 

REK:

That’s right. In fact, after last year, when the North was very belligerent on just about everything, their recent behavior is downright gentle by historical standards.

Petra:

So what purpose do these drills serve?

REK:

Well, they are essentially practice. The first exercise is called Key Resolve; the second is Foal Eagle. That title is to indicate the resolve of the US to fight for Korea. This a computerized wargame, in which various scenarios are ‘played.’ These scenarios are defensive in nature, although the increasingly focus on the possibility of North Korean collapse. That is why the North Koreans worry. Should the North’s government implode, the US and South Korean militaries need plans on the shelf about how to restore order, disarm the North Korean military, and prevent nuclear weapons from either being launched or slipped out of the country. These are the big areas of interest now.

Petra:

What about an Northern invasion of the South?

REK:

Yes, that is still drilled too, but most experts, both Korea and American, consider that extremely unlikely. In fact, I have never read any war scenarios at all for Korea that realistically predict a Northern victory today. As we all know, the North’s economy is a shambles, its people are under-fed, and its military equipment is increasingly obsolete. In fact, South Korea could probably win a war on its own without the US at this point. This is one of the big reasons Kim Jeong-Il sought nuclear weapons. The inter-Korean race – military, political, economic – is over and has been for 15 to 20 years now. And North Korea has lost, very decisively. Nukes are just a desperation tactic.

Petra:

So do we even need the exercises?

REK:

That’s actually a good question at this point. I think the answer is still yes, but North Korea is in so much trouble now that the US and South do not exercise nearly as much as the used to. There used to be four really large exercise each now. Now it’s more like two, and they are smaller. As you might imagine, it costs a lot of money to run these simulations. Almost 20,000 Americans, beyond the US Forces in Korea here already, are flown for several weeks. Tens of thousands of Koreans are mobilized too. That’s a lot of money, and increasingly, South Korea’s environmental laws make it difficult for huge numbers of soldiers to tramp all over the countryside. It’s quite a big show, although its size has declined in the last decade or so.

Petra:

I heard that the US is going to give up the command of the Korean military sometime soon. What’s that all about?

REK:

Yes, that’s true. Right now, the US military has legal authority over the South Korea military in wartime. The Korean military is integrated with the US military into what we call the Combined Forces Command, or CFC.

Petra:

But that’s going to be abolished or something, right?

REK:

It is supposed to be, in 2012. Former President Roh pushed for this. He sold this to the Korean public as a restoration of Korean sovereignty. Seoul received peacetime control of its military in 1994. Before then actually – many Koreans don’t know this – the US government was legally the permanent, commander in chief of whole Korean military. For obvious reasons of course, that looked like US colonialism, and Kim Il Sung used to say that all the time. So after the Cold War, and the withdrawal of Soviet and Chinese support for North Korea, peacetime authority was returned to Seoul. As said earlier, by the mid-90s, South Korea had essentially won the inter-Korean race. North Korea became increasingly isolated as its former communist patrons turned away. So the Northern threat diminished dramatically. This gradual demilitarization of domestic life also helped South Korea democratize more rapidly.

Petra:

But CFC retained wartime authority. I have seen that discussed in the media a little.

REK:

That is correct. If there were a war, the US would re-take control of the Korean military. From a Korean perspective, this sacrifice was worth it. By giving the Americans command of Koreans’ own military, this helped keep the Americans here and committed to Korea’s defense. But again, it looked somewhat imperialistic – a foreign power controlling your own army – and the South Korean left had complained for years about this.

Petra:

So President Roh negotiated an end to it…

REK:

That’s right. Roh was probably the most anti-American president Korea has ever had, and George Bush was quite unpopular here. So Roh marketed the abolition of CFC as a big deal. CFC is supposed to disappear in April 2012, but now Koreans are starting to get cold feet.

Petra:

Why?

REK:

Under Presidents Kim and Roh, relations with North Korea – the sunshine policy – seemed to be improving. CFC looked like a relic of the Cold War. But sunshine never really came together, and the North’s nuclear program has grown and grown. This helped put a conservative, Lee Myung-Bak in the Blue House, and the Lee people a lot more nervous about ending CFC.

Petra:

What do you think?

REK:

Well, it does make life easier for the Americans. It makes it easier for the Americans, if they want, to say they are not as tightly bound to Korean defense as they were. If I were a Korean I think I would be nervous. I think the political pleasure of ‘total sovereignty’ does not outweigh the military benefit of tying the Americans to Korea as tightly as possible.

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