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.