Spring is here, and everyone knows what that means! North Korea and the globe are at it again in their annual dance of posturing that surrounds annual, large-scale military exercises in the region. While this year is markedly different than past years, a common feature of the North-world call and report is that it doesn’t occur constantly or consistently.
So how can we better understand something that, at face value, is belligerent knee jerking, while simultaneously is an annually choreographed event? To start, we need to go deeper into the exchanges of rhetoric, as well as the context of these statements. In doing so, we can understand why this year’s dance is more of the same, while also being a break from traditional exchanges of heated words and threatening gestures.
The question then becomes: why now? Kim Jong Un is no friend of the global community, nor is the lens of animosity that his country views the world through a new one. So what’s special about spring? Foal Eagle. This innocuously named, annual military exercise kicked off on March 8th this year, and coincides with the Key Resolve exercise. Together, these exercises include the participation of over 200,000 South Korean and US soldiers in large-scale war simulations. Despite the dates and names of such exercises changing over the years, the tradition of massive, annual exercises between South Korea and the US goes back nearly 40 years. But the routine nature of these exercises—along with their scale and scope—draws sharp criticism from Pyongyang, the North’s capital and seat of government, in an equally routine and annual way.
To this end, the North responds annually in similar shows of force. In 2015, North Korea launched seven ground-to-air missiles into the ocean, marking the final day of the annual Key Resolve exercises and illustrating its continued protest of the then on-going Foal Eagle exercise. Superficially, these are some pretty strong demonstrations of military might on both sides; however, by October of the same year—which had similar, albeit less bellicose rhetoric concerning a possible war—these exchanges had given way to North Korea’s more normal antagonistic rhetoric—anti-West and anti-South Korean—, in the run-up to its annual political celebrations.
The call and report between North Korea and the international community goes back to 1982, when the North pulled out of talks aimed at easing of tensions on the peninsula. The North’s cited the Team Spirit exercise as its reason—which has been renamed and now is known as the Key Resolve exercise. This exercise, similarly to Foal Eagle, was and is designed to simulate full troop deployments at scale, which gives the participating South Korean and US militaries practical experience operating a joint, full deployment. The other reason for these exercises—and one that is cited in reports by both South Korean and US military academics—is to serve as a carrot on a stick for the North; ‘want us to stop the exercises? Then you better stop X, Y, and Z.’
The non-confrontational relationship between North Korea and the international community further complicates this situation. As strange as it may seem, the international community has expended a large amount of resources to assist North Korea when the North has been willing to play ball. In the 1990s, as the North continued to blame the Team Spirit exercise for why it walked out of tension easing talks, a humanitarian aid crisis developed that forced Kim Jong Il—the former leader of North Korea and father of Kim Jong Un—to reach out for international assistance to end a famine. While North Korea receiving international support was nothing new, this new support largely came from the North’s official enemies. In 2001 alone, at its peak, the US sent 900,000 metric tons—the approximate weight of nearly three Empire State Buildings—of food aid to North Korea. During this period of long-term food assistance—between 1995 and 2010—, North Korea was relatively more cooperative on a wide range of issues from United Nations monitoring and data collection to disarmament. This cooperative attitude slowly declined as 2010 drew closer, and by 2012 the historically normal, less cooperative exchanges of rhetoric became more common.
The above two sections explain why this year’s dance is not a new one; you may already be judging the recent reports differently by now. But this year’s dance is also slightly different in three hugely important ways. First, the Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, has made strides in recent years towards altering the countries pacifist constitution, which states Japan must forever renounce war. Although the article remains intact, a new law, passed through Japan’s parliament in 2016, does allow Japan’s military to participate in overseas military operations. Without going into the historical specifics explaining why, this law changes the annual dynamic—potentially bringing Japan into a more active role in future displays of rhetoric.
The second major difference in this year’s dance comes from China. Despite being North Korea’s steadfast ally, recent developments in the North’s nuclear program have created a widening rift between the two countries. Even with various restrictions, China has engaged in trade with North Korea But this past February China voluntarily stopped buying North Korean coal for the duration of 2017. What makes this so important? Coal. Coal is North Korea’s largest export, with China as its largest trade partner. China’s decision to stop buying North Korean coal for one year is not only a sign the two allies are drifting apart; it’s also a significant blow to the ever-struggling North Korean economy. This move by China diminishes the North’s ability to act out from a means perspective, but increases Kim Jong Un’s need to demonstrate strength to his supporters—something that normally manifests in missile tests, nuclear tests, threats, and/or increased anti-West propaganda.
Finally, there is the known-unknown: President Trump. Regardless of where you or I stand politically, one feature of Mr. Trump’s presidency has been inconsistent rhetoric regarding East Asia. Unfortunately, this inconsistency has been another unpredictable variable to the world’s annual dance with North Korea. While there are signs that China does plan to increase its own cooperation with the US in resolving the North’s nuclear ambitions, Mr. Trump’s policies regarding North Korea remain inconsistent. Because of this inconsistency, North Korea will be forced to guess Mr. Trump’s intentions. On some level this gamble may prove beneficial, but—given that even the North’s antagonism seems to follow some standard protocol—the likely result will be an abnormal heightening of tensions in the region.
While we all enjoy this spring’s display of military might, it can often be hard to remember that this demonstration happens more or less every year—and has since the 1970s. True, tensions are at an all time high and, yes, North Korea continues to reach new heights of nuclear power every year, but recognizing how this dance has and has not changed can make it less terrifying for the casual observer.
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