Kim Jong Un oversaw another Korean People’s Army (KPA) exercise today, the third in the last week, and just days before U.S. and South Korea begin their annual “Foal Eagle” and “Key Resolve” joint exercises.
“Kim Jong Un issued an order to examine the capability of artillery units to fight an actual war and guided it on the spot”, North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said. The report also said that Kim issued the order “all of a sudden” to examine the “preparedness of units for an actual battle.”
Tensions have spiked since North Korea launched a satellite in December and conducted its third nuclear test earlier this month, drawing international condemnation and sanctions from the U.N. Security Council, and newly inaugurated South Korean president Park Geun-hye put her military on high alert shortly after midnight of her first day in the Blue House yesterday.
The number of exercises, and overall appearances by Kim in North Korean media, have spiked sharply in recent days. The KCNA reported that Kim guided flight exercises and a paratrooping drill on the 22nd, as well as tactical live fire exercises on the 21st.
A new generation of military officers are also becoming more prominent. Since Kim appeared at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace on February 16th, twelve officers have been publicly mentioned at events with him for the first time.*
In addition to these recent exercises, Kim Jong Un made public appearances at a KPA unit, visited the construction site of the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, had his photo taken with army lecturers and watched the State Merited Chorus with prominent military officers. This stands in marked contrast to Kim’s appearances this time last year, which did not include any military exercises and only a few visits to KPA units.
On Saturday, Pak Rim Su, the chief of the Panmunjom Mission of the KPA, sent a typically aggressive statement to James Thurman (misidentified – perhaps ironically – as Sherman in the article), the U.S. military commander in South Korea. The statement warned that the U.S. side was igniting a “war of aggression” by staging the exercises, and said “You had better bear in mind that those igniting a war are destined to meet a miserable destruction while a great victory is in store for the guardians of justice.”
The Rodong Sinmun, the North Korean Workers’ Party newspaper, called the exercises an “extremely perilous provocation for nuclear preemptive strike [sic]”, and said that the situation “may bring about an all-out war.”
The military exercises are a constant source of anger for the North Koreans. Kim Il Sung complained about the exercises publicly and privately for years, and even told U.S. Representative Gary Ackerman that it was a “dress rehearsal for an invasion”, Don Oberdorfer argues in his book The Two Koreas.
While security concerns certainly play a large role, another likely reason the North Koreans dislike the exercises is that it forces the military to operate on high alert, draining resources from a country already under enormous constraints.
In a statement, United States Forces Korea (USFK) announced that “Foal Eagle” would run from March 1st to April 30th, and would consist of “20 separate but inter-related joint and combined field training exercises…spanning ground, air, naval, expeditionary, and special operations.”
Approximately 10,000 U.S. troops and an unspecified number of South Korean troops will participate.
The “Key Resolve” exercise will begin on March 11th and last until March 21st. According to a USFK statement, the exercise seeks to improve South Korean and U.S. combined forces “operation capabilities, coordinating and executing the deployment of US reinforcement forces, and maintaining the ROK military’s combat capabilities.”
The statement also points out that this is the first year that the exercise will be led by the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff and not the Combined Forces Command. Approximately 10,000 South Korean forces, along with 3,500 U.S. forces, will participate.
*It is entirely possible that these officers appeared with Kim Jong Un or Kim Jong Il previously but were not named by North Korean media.