The US and South Korean militaries have begun their annual military exercises, dubbed Key Resolve and Foal Eagle. Among the largest and most important military exercises in the world, they have become a yearly spring ritual. Kind of like prom.
After all, Key Resolve and Foal Eagle are costly annual spectacles that, each year, have a slightly different theme. What the events mean to you, how you prepare for them, and how badly you lose your shit over them says a lot about who you are and where you fit in the hierarchy of your peers. There's even probably some taffeta involved.
But what makes the exercises so interesting is the wildly different strategic maneuvering they put on display—on both sides of the DMZ. The Korean War ended more than 60 years ago with a ceasefire agreement, but no peace treaty. That means the war, which resulted in more than 4.3 million military and civilian casualties—including 128,650 amongst US military personnel—never technically ended. And the large-scale military exercises regularly held on both sides of the border (they've been going on for decades) are incremental steps in the evolution of this conflict.
Military exercises are simulations—or, if you prefer, massively multiplayer live-action role-playing events. These simulations are carried out for one of two reasons. Some exercises are experiments in which two teams compete against each other in an effort to find out what tactics, equipment, or practices are the most effective and which ones are ludicrous nonsense. The other purpose of an exercise is to provide training and practice. Most militaries spend much of their time “training” in a classroom—if they’re lucky—with computer simulations. Field exercises give people a chance to work with real gear in the real world.
The ability to physically move large numbers of people and tons of equipment, in a manner that sort of looks like real war, is also a good way to let other countries know your capabilities and intentions. It tells foreign militaries and governments, both allied and opposing, that your military could, if called upon, find the keys to their tanks and planes.
This year’s exercises, which will involve 12,700 US troops and 190,000 South Korean troops, run until April 18, and they have already generated agitation and consternation from some corners.
For the US and South Korea, the exercises are primarily focused on one thing: deterring North Korea from starting another war... or continuing the current one that never really ended. The Korean War kicked off with a (more-or-less) surprise attack by North Korea, and since then, the South has gone to great lengths to make it clear that nobody will ever get the jump on them like that again. Part of their effort includes proving that the US is both willing and able to support South Korea, should North Korea come pouring over the DMZ.
The typical response for a nation in North Korea's situation would be to hold a huge exercise of its own and deter right back. But the problem for North Korea is that large-scale exercises are both a complex pain in the ass and frightfully expensive. So what is a very poor North Korea to do if it wants to deter its opponents?
Deterrence means letting the other guy know you're a threat. And as far as analysis goes, there are two measures for determining whether something is a threat: capabilities and intent. The easiest and clearest way to think about threats is to look at capabilities. Does an opponent have the ability to kick your ass? A lot of folks prefer to think about threats this way because it’s far easier to count tanks and airplanes than it is to read minds.
The other way of thinking about threats is to focus on intent. This can be tricky because it’s hard to measure and quantify feelings.
North Korea is not able to scare off the world’s largest and best-funded military by strength of arms alone. Yet North Korea can make it quite clear that they are crazy enough to start a war so horrendous that nobody wins. The North Koreans routinely attempt to do this in order to achieve two things: one, to show the US (and South Korea) that they can’t be pushed around; and two, to create enough of a fuss to get some extra concessions out of their frequent negotiations with the rest of the world.
And so to push back against potential military threats and score some points for future negotiations, North Korea reliably stages a number of high-profile diplomatic events (read: stunts) before and during. Last year, this involved the sixth North Korean announcement that they were pulling out of the Korean War ceasefire agreement and hinting that they might nuke Austin, Texas.
This year should prove no exception, and North Korea has already been laying the groundwork. To start, like every other year, North Korea has been calling the exercises provocative and dangerous, asserting that they’re really intended to cover up US and South Korean preparations to launch an invasion of the North.
Meanwhile, much like last year, North Korea is apparently doing a lot of advance work at their nuclear-weapons manufacturing facility, nuclear-weapons test site, and missile-launch facility. The North Koreans know that American satellites will see this, so this work is an early part of the North’s deterrence effort. It also lays the groundwork for further activity, like testing nuclear bombs or launching ICBMs in coming weeks
In a somewhat more benign measure, North Korea has agreed to permit reunions of families torn apart by the Korean War. Now that both sides have agreed that the reunions should go ahead, they both have something they can halt in protest, should the need for such a protest arise.
Last year’s annual Korean crisis was one of the most dramatic seen in decades, which has fueled uncertainty about the relatively new Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. Some speculate that he needs to be more dramatic and macho to convince regime hard-liners that he is tough enough to rule the country. Others have wondered whether or not the more aggressive posture indicates that Kim is even more erratic than dear ol’ Dad.
What does this mean going forward? The mood on the Korean border is always a bit touchy: Since the end of the Korean War, more than 450 South Korean and 100 US military personnel have been killed in cross-border skirmishes. Military exercises have played a role in some of the sporadic bouts of violence. On one hand, exercises raise tensions, increasing the likelihood of war, either through deliberate action or miscalculation. On the other hand, both sides can renew their deterrent posture, which, perversely, can indicate that nobody wants to fight.
There is no doubt that Korea watchers will be closely following what unfolds over the next two months. Diplomats will be shuffling responses, recalculating postures, and making formal statements on a regular basis. Military commanders will be adapting and tweaking deployments and exercises, in constant response to directives from civilian leadership. And yet despite some of the loudest and scariest saber rattling on the planet, we’ll probably get through this without a catastrophically violent war breaking out in Korea. However, much like prom, everything can seem different the morning after the big event.