Who's ready for the US - South Korea war games?

We’ve only just now managed to cool down the easily inflamed ego of Kim Jong-un (not that anyone really cares how angry he is this week) after his threat to rain down ICBMs around Guam, possibly tipping it over in the process. The back and forth saber rattling has moved up considerably in temperature ever since we found out he now has some amazingly advanced (and probably Russian) rockets and very likely the ability to miniaturize his nukes to fit on them.

What better time than now to schedule some war games with his sworn enemy, South Korea?

Of course, that’s a completely unfair statement since this is an annual event and it’s been planned for ages. But still, as the Associated Press reports, we’re no doubt going to stir up some sort of response from the North’s diminutive dictator.

America’s annual joint military exercises with South Korea always frustrate North Korea. The war games set to begin Monday may hold more potential to provoke than ever, given President Donald Trump’s “fire and fury” threats and Pyongyang’s as-yet-unpursued plan to launch missiles close to Guam.

Will the allies keep it low-key, or focus on projecting strength? An examination of this year’s drills and how the North might respond to them:

The Ulchi Freedom Guardian drills, which will run through Aug. 31, will be the first large-scale military exercise between the allies since North Korea successfully flight-tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles in July and threatened to bracket Guam with intermediate range ballistic missile fire earlier this month.

Despite some calls to postpone or drastically modify drills to ease the hostility on the Korean Peninsula, U.S. and South Korean military officials say that the long-scheduled exercises will go ahead as planned.

Lot’s of good details and perspective in that article so it’s definitely worth a look. The games will involve tens of thousands of American troops coordinating with the South Koreans and they usually involve some air support, with bombers flying over far closer than North Korea would care to see. (Though not as thorough as some of the other war games where we have naval runs and the full menu of options.)

This wouldn’t really be a newsworthy item aside from the two key questions which the AP article raises. Is this something we should have considered postponing or scaling back, given Kim’s natural reaction to such things? Or is this precisely what we need to be doing and possibly more?

To the first one, I would agree with the military chiefs who are already offering a definitive “no.” Canceling these games would send precisely the wrong message to North Korea’s tyrant. He’d think that he’d gotten the upper hand on President Trump (as he largely did with Barack Obama) and could go back to his usual ploy of threatening until he gets some sort of concession and makes an offer to us in return which he almost immediately violates. His people, who only have access to state run media, probably think that he’s handling the current situation boldly and brilliantly, but Kim knows the truth. He has “Fire and Fury” in his future if he makes good on his threats and he was no doubt mortified to have to back down on the Guam threat. That’s the only language he understands.

So the answer to the second question is most likely “yes.” We could scale this up a bit and force him to put on more demonstrations of his own strength in return. (Historically that’s what he’s always done.) He won’t be able to launch any actual ICBM attacks which look like anything other than a controlled crash into the ocean without provoking a devastating response, so he’ll burn up more money (which is in short supply) with his usual pomp and circumstance. The faster he burns through his available cash, the sooner he will come to the bargaining table in a serious way unless he’s actually crazy enough to attack.

That last thought is always a possibility, but if it’s true we were never going to avoid this war anyway. The United States struck a blow in getting him to back down once and we should absolutely keep on the pressure, both economic and in terms of military displays. We can outlast Kim Jong-un far sooner than we did the Soviet Union in their final days.

David Strom 6:41 PM on September 26, 2022