After nuclear-armed Pyongyang warned such drills could be seen as a “declaration of war,” South Korea and the United States began their largest joint military exercises in five years on Monday in Seoul.
As North Korea has conducted a number of illegal weapons tests in recent months, tensions between the United States and South Korea have increased and the two countries have increased their defense cooperation.
The Freedom Shield exercises between the United States and South Korea will begin on Monday and last for at least ten days, with a focus on the “changing security environment” caused by North Korea’s renewed aggression.
Ahead of Freedom Shield, the Seoul military made the unusual decision this month to announce that it and Washington special forces were staging “Teak Knife” military exercises, which simulate precision strikes on key facilities in North Korea.
North Korea is livid whenever there are military drills of this type because it believes they are practice for an invasion.
It has asserted that its nuclear and missile programs are defensive.
A submarine off North Korea’s east coast launched two “strategic cruise missiles” over the weekend, according to the country’s official KCNA news agency on Monday.
In response to “the US imperialists and the South Korean puppet forces are getting ever more undisguised in their anti-DPRK military maneuvers,” the news agency cited the country’s “invariable stand.”
Pyongyang “has military capabilities under development it wants to test anyway and likes to use Washington and Seoul’s cooperation as an excuse,” according to Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
North Korea is formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (abbreviated DPRK).
Separately, North Korea’s foreign ministry claimed that the United States was “scheming” to coordinate joint maneuvers with a United Nations Security Council meeting on human rights in the isolated communist state.
As the most intense expression of the United States’ hostile policy toward the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the ministry said, “The DPRK bitterly denounces the US vicious ‘human rights’ racket as the most emphatic rejection of it.” This was reported by KCNA.
Leader Kim Jong Un last week ordered his military to intensify drills in preparation for a “real war,” following the North’s declaration of “irreversible” nuclear power status and record-breaking number of missile launches in 2017.
The United States has reiterated its “ironclad” commitment to South Korea’s defense, saying it will use “the full range of its military capabilities, including nuclear.”
When it comes to the threat of attack from North Korea, South Korea wants to reassure its growingly anxious public of the United States’ commitment to so-called extended deterrence, in which US military assets, including nuclear weapons, are used to deter attacks on allies.
While neither country has changed its official stance toward North Korea, which is that Kim must relinquish his nuclear weapons and return to the negotiating table, experts have noted a shift in practice.
As An Chan-il, a defector-turned-researcher who heads the World Institute for North Korea Studies, told AFP, “effectively acknowledged that North Korea will never give up its nuclear program,” Washington has done the same.
Since that event has occurred, this Freedom Shield training “will be very different — both qualitatively and quantitatively from previous joint exercises that have taken place in recent years,” he said.
Experts predicted North Korea would respond to the US-South Korean drills with its own series of missile launches and drills, and they were right to some extent. North Korea recently called for a “exponential” increase in weapons production, including tactical nukes.
Retired South Korean army general Chun In-bum predicted that North Korea would use the Freedom Shield 2023 Exercise to rally its people and justify further investment in nuclear weapons.
Even with a nuclear test, more missile launches of varying styles and scopes can be expected. It is not surprising that North Korea would repeat its previous intimidation tactics.
But Hong Min of the Korea Institute for National Unification said Pyongyang would not “cross the red line.” He said the North would likely abstain from activities “at which the US and South Korea are forced to counter strike in response.”