Delicate Footwork: Security and Diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula

Main Image Credit Meeting between US and North Korea delegations in Singapore, 12 June 2018. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Dan Scavino Jr

The suspension of US–South Korean military exercises is a vital step in the broader effort to build confidence on the Korean peninsula.

Diplomacy has been the flavour of the year with North Korea in 2018, and efforts have cultivated a two-track approach. The South Korean administration has been the instigator, putting peace and security initiatives at the heart of engagement with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). But this track has been largely separated from the US–DPRK engagement that has been primarily tasked with denuclearisation.

In an attempt to contribute to efforts to reduce military tension and support the opening of diplomacy, US President Donald Trump suspended the large-scale combined military exercises between the US and South Korea, following his Singapore summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in June. The suspension of the combined military exercises has created expectations for the context of diplomacy that will likely be considered the status quo for ongoing diplomatic efforts, especially from the North Korea perspective. The sustainment of this, however, is still unclear. US Defense Secretary James Mattis alluded last month to the possibility that the US–Republic of Korea (ROK) exercise suspension would not apply to the 2019 version of Foal Eagle, a combined field-training exercise conducted annually, with a suggestion that these exercises would go ahead but with alterations. Yet this was closely followed by media reports that Foal Eagle as a combined exercise will actually be cancelled, with ROK forces carrying out their own training at a reduced scale, and without US troop participation. 

Although sanctions relief, economic engagement and cultural engagement all play roles in diplomacy, measures related to peace, security and military confidence-building have been fundamental to the initial stages of engagement in both the inter-Korean track and the US–DPRK track. Steps to this end include the absence of long-range missile and nuclear tests on the part of the DPRK, and a suspension of the large-scale combined US–ROK military exercises, coupled with a series of conventional military confidence-building and risk-reduction measures between the two Koreas.

These steps have contributed to a new, and developing, context on the peninsula. This new context has grown out of efforts to recognise and address North Korea’s security concerns, with the hope of incentivising engagement and reducing the threat perception which is one of the drivers of North Korea’s nuclear weapons development and maintenance. The suspension of the US–ROK joint military exercises is a significant contribution to this. The exercises have long been perceived negatively in Pyongyang and considered a threat to DPRK security.  

Restarting the exercises at a level comparable to that of recent years would risk the future of the US–DPRK diplomatic track and damage hope for efforts to at least limit North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme. This collapse would not only have a negative impact on the opportunity to limit North Korea’s nuclear programme through diplomacy, but could solidify a growing gap in the US–South Korean alliance. This decoupling outcome would certainly be a win for Pyongyang, and contribute to its longstanding desire to weaken the US–ROK alliance and reduce the US role and presence on the peninsula.

The option of restarting the exercises could also result in the US appearing to be the party acting in bad faith. North Korea has clearly not yet taken steps to tangibly and significantly alter its nuclear capabilities. But denuclearisation was never going to be a quick process, and thinking of the process in such terms adds unnecessary pressure. This year should, therefore, be understood as the year of foundation-laying to a broader project. The lack of satisfactory steps from the DPRK on the nuclear front thus far should not, therefore, be considered a faltering of diplomacy and used to ignite steps which will push the entire process backwards.  

Additionally, reinstating the large-scale combined military exercises could jeopardise the opportunity for a second Trump–Kim summit, which would provide a significant opportunity to achieve agreement on some concrete steps towards denuclearisation. The North Korean leader and his key aides clearly have a desire to deal with Trump directly, and Trump has proved to be one US president willing to engage in summitry with North Korea. This unique channel of communication should be preserved, as it could prove beneficial to limiting and rolling back some of North Korea’s nuclear activities.

Still, this does raise a chicken-and-egg question: will a second Trump–Kim summit depend on the final decision taken on 2019 large-scale exercises, or will the re-instigation of these exercises depend on US satisfaction with the DPRK’s engagement and efforts leading up to a second summit?

It should not be considered a failure that efforts to improve the security environment on the peninsula have yet to result in concrete steps by North Korea to limit or roll back its nuclear programme. Building confidence between North Korea and the US has been, and will continue to be, vital if such steps are to be achieved. However, it is equally true that next year cannot end in a similar position to the current one, and ways forward on the nuclear issue need to become more concrete. One way to do this is to more explicitly tie the steps in the conventional military space to denuclearisation, and a framework for this has been set out in a recent RUSI Occasional Paper.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not necessarily represent those of RUSI or any other institution. 


Cristina Varriale

Associate Fellow

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