GEOFF MILLER. Korea: Missiles or exercises or both?


Despite President Trump’s latest supercilious Tweet, North Korea may still seek to make the cancellation of exercise Ulchi-Freedom Guardian the price of not firing its missiles into waters near Guam. 

Australians, alert and quite probably alarmed after Prime Minister Turnbull’s “joined at the hip” endorsement of our military alliance with the United States in the Pacific, will have noticed Defence Minister Marise Payne’s confirmation on 16 August that around twenty Australian Defence personnel will take part in a major US-RoK military exercise next week.  The exercise, named Ulchi-Freedom Guardian, is an annual air, sea and land exercise involving tens of thousands of troops.  The small Australian participation, however, will be essentially in a head-quarters or “desk-top” capacity.

However, given Kim Jong-un’s recent reported remarks, even for Australians our participation in it is far from the most significant aspect of the planned exercise.  According to “The Australian” of 16 August Kim, when examining plans for missile launches into waters near Guam, said he would “watch a little more, the foolish and stupid conduct of the Yankees” before ordering the missile launch, which could be reactivated if the Americans “persist in their extremely dangerous, reckless actions on the Korean peninsula”.  He said the US must “audit fully the likely gains and losses, exercise a correct option, and then demonstrate through deeds”.

It seems quite likely that in the days remaining he will more explicitly tie “the conduct of the Yankees” to whether or not the Ulchi exercise goes ahead.

To a nervous region and world the idea of a deal—no exercise, no missile launches to near Guam— might seem highly desirable.  But it can be looked at in different ways.  For one thing, such a deal would be much less than the deal publicly proposed by China, namely cancellation of North Korea’s nuclear tests and missile launches in exchange for a suspension of US-RoK military exercises.

The US has taken the view that the deal proposed by the Chinese is unbalanced, partly on the grounds that it equates US-RoK exercises, on RoK territory, with North Korean nuclear and missile tests and launches repeatedly banned and condemned by UN Security Council resolutions.  It would no doubt consider a deal equating missiles to Guam with the cancellation of US-RoK military exercises as even more unbalanced—and likely to set an unacceptable precedent.  If the threat of missile launches to Guam is seen as a good reason to suspend a major and long-established US-RoK military exercise, when will be the right or acceptable time to resume it?

Nevertheless there are major issues in play, and more than two players.  China and Russia are clearly two of them, in addition to the US and North Korea, and South Korea’s President Moon has recently stressed that the RoK is crucially involved; he said that it “will not allow” war to break out on the peninsula.  What that might mean in the launch/exercise context remains to be seen.

The next few days may therefore be very important in the ongoing North Korea drama.  It hasn’t taken much for the world’s stock markets to decide that the threat posed by Korean events to the global economy has eased, and Trump’s Tweet had something of an air of victory about it.  Some US press comment has been in terms of having successfully once again called a North Korean bluff.  But it seems a bit early to be so sanguine.  Causes for optimism include one reading of Kim’s remarks, efforts by the US, e.g. the Tillerson-Mattis letter, to reassure North Korea about US intentions towards it, and the fact that there has clearly been more communication between the parties than had been publicly apparent.  But whatever understandings have been reached may be seriously tested in the next few days.

 Geoff Miller is a former Australian Ambassador to the Republic of Korea and Japan, and Director-General of the Office of National Assessments.


Geoff Miller is a former Australian government official and diplomat.

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2 Responses to GEOFF MILLER. Korea: Missiles or exercises or both?

  1. I wrote ‘Iraq’ which should of course be Israel.
    “as much as India, Pakistan and Israel…”

  2. Yes indeed. And while calculated order at the top in Pyongyang, not so in Washington.

    The problem arising is that the asserted objectives of the UN Security Council, others involved with non-proliferation, the US, Australia, the EU, etc… are not going to be achieved. The DPRK is on the threshold of nuclear weapon state status, as much as India, Pakistan and Iraq and their certain conviction is that that status is their (regime, family) survival can only be assured by nuclear weapon state status. The NPT has failed in this case, the apparati of non-proliferation now well over 40 years old have failed in this case. The exponents of non-proliferation need now to focus on motivation to nuclear weapon state status, which is an expensive buy for most states. Getting big heads around that will not be easy, harder than getting Australian leaders to read Article 1 of the ANZUS Treaty. Viz: “The Parties undertake, as set forth in the Charter of the United Nations, to settle any international disputes in which they may be involved by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security and justice are not endangered and to refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force in any manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations.”

    Ulchi begins on Monday. Trump (and many more) will be focused on his going to a divisive rally in Phoenix Tuesday evening (11am Wednesday, Seoul time). Kim knows that, one hopes.

    General Kelly, White House Chief of Staff was reported to have difficulty finding perspective over the weekend of developments at Charlottesville and was then a distraught bystander during the Wednesday rant at Trump Tower.

    There are three generals in conclave on Korea at this moment, Kelly, Defence Secretary Mattis and National Security Advisor McMaster. McMaster author of a book scathingly critical of civilian ‘interference’ with command decisions at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam. Mattis is a marine general and despite his ‘Mad Dog’ labelling reportedly has a history of some ethical concern, presence among soldiers in hard places and relieving of dishonest or less than upright officers. Kelly seems to have been brought into the administration for his unblinking toughness, characteristic of the US Southern Command and perspective towards Latin America. Present at the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003, Wikipedia records him saying: “During the initial assault on Baghdad, Kelly was asked by a reporter for The Los Angeles Times if, considering the size of the Iraqi Army and the vast supplies of tanks, artillery and chemical weapons available to Saddam’s forces, he would ever consider defeat. Kelly’s archetypal response was “Hell these are Marines. Men like them held Guadalcanal and took Iwo Jima. Baghdad ain’t shit.”

    Timeline and cast.

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