SEOUL – South Korean and U.S. forces began two week-long military drills this morning – a move that North Korea says could justify “pre-emptive” nuclear strikes in response.
Pyongyang cut an emergency communication line that links the two Koreas after the drills began, following up on an earlier threat that promised to end communications should today’s drills go ahead.
“Key Resolve” is the second stage of U.S. – ROK military exercises amid the ongoing “Foal Eagle” joint-operation that sees some 10,000 South Korean forces training alongside 3,500 American personnel. The drills are labelled as primarily defensive in nature, but North Korea views them as a threat to national security, and dress rehearsals for a full invasion of the DPRK.
Although the annual “Key Resolve” drills usually evoke North Korean ire, this year the exercises coincide with the announcement of new UN Security Council sanctions – the second time in as many months.
Having already raised tensions by conducting a third nuclear test last month, Pyongyang upped its rhetoric last week by scrapping a number of peace agreements with South Korea and warning that it would exercise the right to conduct preemptive nuclear strikes if today’s “Key Resolve” drills were to go ahead.
“Armies practice and that’s what this is. But, to their enemies, such drills are always threatening,” North Korea observer Michael Breen told NK NEWS today.
“In the context of international condemnation of their nuclear tests, this doesn’t look like it’s doing any good”.
North Korea has a track record for raising tensions with angry rhetoric then quietly backing down, some observers point out. Michael Madden of the NK Leadership Watch blog told NK NEWS that today is not the first time that North Korea has canceled the armistice, and today’s announcement is the sixth time that Pyongyang has publicly severed the military communication hotline with the South.
“A lot of what we’re reading or hearing from Pyongyang has appeared in previous iterations, going back to the 1990s”, Madden explained. “Does this rule out provocative activity? No. We may see some artillery shells being fired in the West Sea, a possible naval skirmish or an incursion by the KPA [Korean People's Army] Navy across the NLL [Northern Limit Line], or a possible short-range missile launch.”
South Korean military officials cited by the Seoul-based Yonhap news agency reported this morning that North Korean forces have stepped up drills in recent days and placed “artillery cannons where South Korea can easily see them”. In contrast, a senior military source told the South Korean Chosun Ilbo that no unusual movements had been observed in North Korea.
Observers worry that, with tensions running high and two new leaders in Pyongyang and Seoul, there is significant potential for escalation in the event of military confrontation. Both Kim Jong Un and Park Geun-hye are under domestic pressure to show strong and decisive leadership in the face of each other’s threats.
The WATCHCON alert system used by U.S. and South Korean allies to monitor tension and escalation on the peninsula has been raised a level, says Madden. But as of yet there have been no reports of West Sea islands or DMZ villages being evacuated. “If there is an escalation in tensions or initiation of hostilities by either side, [South Korea] could be viewed as using human shields [if it does not evacuate these areas].”
South Korea has vowed a “strong” and “stern” punishment in the face of any potential North Korean military action.
“North Korea’s current military drills can lead to provocation at any time… South Korea’s military is preparing so that we can respond and punish them for any provocative acts,” South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok told reporters in Seoul last week.
Last week, South Korean intelligence officials also said that North Korea has been making preparations for a large-scale military drill of their own in response to today’s U.S.-ROK drills. North Korea has set no-fly and no-sail zones off its east and west coasts, raising the speculation that Pyongyang may conduct short-to-medium-range missile tests in the coming days.
Despite North Korea’s aggressive rhetoric, life in South Korea carries on as normal. The streets are busy with lunchtime office workers, and most ordinary South Koreans seem unaware or fatigued by the recent rise in tensions. ”In Seoul, we feel it’s all just the usual rhetoric. Most people are not interested,” Michael Breen says, speaking from the South Korean capital.
North and South Korea never formally ended the Korean War, with hostilities frozen for sixty years based not on a peace treaty, but a temporary armistice agreement.