Read and watch more about North Korea in "March Madness," a VICE News special section on the Hermit Kingdom.
Every spring, with amazing regularity, the entire Korean peninsula goes bonkers for a few weeks. The militaries of South Korea and the United States conduct exercises in the region, while North Korea vents its frustration by launching ballistic missiles into the nearby ocean, upsetting both fish and its neighbors. Dire threats are issued, weapons are tested, and so on and so forth.
The two Koreas and the US have been getting riled up about military exercises on an annual basis since the Korean War ended (without a peace treaty, so it's still technically on) in 1953. These days, the spring exercises are called Key Resolve and Foal Eagle. Key Resolve lasts about a week and is what is called a Command Post Exercise or CPX. This particular CPX is to run commanders and their staff through a process called Reception, Staging, Onward Movement, and Integration, or RSOI.
In non-military terms, RSOI is the part where the backup military arrives in country, gets set up, and then goes off to fight. Because war on the Korean peninsula would likely involve shipping a lot of US forces there — US forces stationed in the country amount to just 28,500, compared with 630,000 in the South Korean military and 1.2 million troops on the Northern side — the US and South Korea figure that it's important to keep in practice.
Foal Eagle is Key Resolve's counterpart, and lasts anywhere from several weeks to two months. It involves the actual running-around-in-the-mud-and-shooting-at-things portion of the exercises. It's a pretty large exercise by global standards, and the ostensible point for US and South Korean forces is to build experience working together so that, in the event of war, they know how to coordinate.
South Korea and US swear high and low that these exercises are purely defensive in nature, and that they're just reviewing their instructions for what to do in the event of a unjust and completely unprovoked surprise attack from the North. Simultaneously, North Korea's government howls at the moon, insisting that the exercises are really a dress rehearsal for an unjust and completely unprovoked invasion of the North.
This routine brouhaha makes for passable entertainment, but after a while, it gets to be like Groundhog Day. It just gets awfully repetitive and tedious — at least in a massive-military-drill-and-apocalyptic-threats kind of way.
Why bother at all? Sure, practice makes perfect, but why repeatedly engage in the overly predictable fuss?
The exercises and corresponding diplomatic kerfuffle amount to a form of communication. Over long periods of time, the year-to-year changes in exercises and temper tantrums basically unfold like a soap opera plot line.
Nations communicate in all kinds of ways. There's stuff like the traditional speech and diplomatic communique, which tends to be pretty obvious. People are often suspicious of the motivation and message underlying each statement, but that's part of the delicate dance of diplomacy in action.
When political communication breaks down, you can end up with a war (aka "politics by other means"). Diplomatic communications are to war as talking through a problem is to a fistfight. They're both different varieties of getting your point across, but one is cheap and the other very costly.
But there's a sort of middle ground between the two, and it's most of what militaries do the rest of the time. It's politics by other means, but falls far short of getting into an actual conflict.
Some of it is sheer existence. Simply by being well equipped and well trained, a military sends a clear "Do Not Invade" signal. Other elements, like cooperative missions, humanitarian efforts, and training exercises, signal a military's intent and how much one country might back up another in a fight.
If diplomatic communiques are like talking and war is equivalent to slugging it out, then military exercises can be considered part of a vast vocabulary of body language that operates in the middle. Of course, there's a lot more to diplomatic body language than simply military exercises, such as trade agreements, cultural tours, state visits, and the like. But the military is still capable of saying a whole lot on its own.
Psychologists estimate that non-verbal communication like body language accounts for something like 60 percent of communication between two people, and that assessment is conservative. The point is that there's a lot that gets said not in the exercises themselves, but in all kinds of small details, like overflights or press releases (or showing off nuclear warheads), that adds up to a huge amount of signaling between countries.
But if all the Korean governments are doing is saying that they hate each other a whole lot, that doesn't really rise to the level of interesting. For that, you have to go one layer deeper.
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Conveniently, some of the fine folks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies have taken a crack at unlocking the code of military exercise body language. By comparing physical actions, press releases, and general craziness in the spring exercise season over a 10-year period, they were able to get at one crucial question: Does all the screaming and saber-rattling just end up making the situation in Korea worse?
What they found, basically, is that if relations were on an upbeat note going in, then the exercises didn't really have much effect. Both sides know that the exercises are inevitable and going to happen anyway, so they just decline to make a big stink out of them. But if the relationship is already especially sour going in, the exercises and affiliated drama are going to amplify that as well.
Now, if you consider the fact that none of these exercise seasons have actually resulted in anything like a full-blown war, then each of them start to look like installments of a TV sitcom, in a way. They obey the same rules and follow a predictable pattern. No new characters are added, no one gets killed off, and the situation at the end of the episode is fairly close to the original situation. If two characters start out the episode on a positive note, then they'll probably stay positive. If they wake up angry, they'll go to bed angry.
The norm in this case is a military exercise followed by a ritual freak-out. The difference, year to year, is whether a given threat and freak-out seems more over-the-top than usual or if it is relatively sedate by recent standards.
If you've been following the past few seasons of Korea's Annual Spring Freak-Out, the ebbs and flows of each season start to form a longer storyline, which is just the narrative of diplomatic relations on the Korean peninsula.
That said, there's still room, once in a while, for a bit of a surprise. All those small changes in posture and body language sometimes end up telling a slightly different story than you'd hear from more overt diplomatic communications. The classic example of this was the so-called "ping-pong diplomacy" between the US and China in the 1970s. Way back then, the US and China were implacably hostile, so this seemingly innocent exchange of ping pong players between the US and China served as a sort of icebreaker and a way for both countries to show that they weren't bent on world domination. The visits ultimately paved the way for subsequent diplomatic exchanges and the eventual normalization of relations between the two countries.
In other words, if you watch very closely, all this non-verbal communication sometimes conceals the occasional flirt.
There's still a lot of time left on the clock for this year's spring exercise season, so stay tuned to see how the US, North Korea, and South Korea try to navigate that tangled mess of a relationship — and what messages their body language will be sending.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan
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