South Korea began an expanded version of its annual Hoguk Exercises last Thursday, with over 240,000 troops from all branches of the military as well as police officers and other government officials. In addition, approximately 500 U.S. troops are also participating in the exercises.
In a statement, the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said,
“This year’s exercise expanded in size in a bid to foster joint combat capabilities to prepare for provocations by North Korea and an all-out war, considering the recent security situations.”
The beginning of the annual Hoguk Exercises also means the beginning of the annual North Korean complaints about them. This year’s response seems has been similar to past years, and comes at a time of heightened tension around the Northern Limit Line and DMZ.
The North has already released six articles on KCNA and Rodong Sinmun (the Workers’ Party newspaper) that mention the Hoguk Exercises. One, “Hoguk Exercises to Be Kicked off in S. Korea”, was released before the exercises kicked off and was a fairly straight-forward overview of what they would entail. The next article, “Lee Myung Bak Accused of His Reckless Remarks Inciting War”, tied the exercises into other recent “provocations” by the South, including Lee’s visit to Yonpyeong Island and the supposedly government-sponsored leaflet release.
The first in-depth opposition to the Hoguk exercises was released on Saturday, in the article “S.Korea-US. ‘Hoguk’ War Exercises under Fire.” This came in the form of a statement by a spokesman for the National Peace Committee of Korea, which read in part that,
“The on-going military maneuvers involving even U.S. imperialist aggression forces in south Korea are now being staged under the simulated conditions of an actual war according to the carefully worked out operational scenario for invading the north. They include drills for sudden armed invasion such as landing and air strike at regions of the DPRK.”
In addition, it threatened that,
“Should the south Korean group of traitors ignite a war to the last in conspiracy with the U.S., the DPRK will wipe out the aggressors to the last one through all-out retaliation and merciless counterattack.”
A commentary in Rodong Sinmun released on Sunday hit a similar note, saying that,
“The high-stake military drill is dangerous as it edges the situation of the Korean Peninsula and the rest of the Northeast Asia towards the brink of war.”
In addition, it accuses the Lee government of trying to create a security crisis with the intent of boosting the Saenuri Party in the upcoming presidential election.
While it would be easy to brush these comments aside as the typical North Korean bluster, it is well known that they have always taken the exercises and war games run by the South Koreans and U.S. very seriously, considering them a prelude to invasion.
For the current Hoguk Exercises, the Daily NK has quoted two sources within the country saying that the North is currently in a nationwide quasi-state of war, with people ordered to be “on alert” and to “refrain from traveling unnecessarily.”
Among the reasons the North hates the exercises so much is that they impose a significant cost on a country under enormous constraints. In a country where the military is responsible for a great deal of economic activity, staying on high alert while the exercises are underway means that other tasks have to be delayed.