U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said on Tuesday that the United States “is no longer planning to suspend South Korea-U.S. military exercises.” His comments are seen as a gesture to add military pressure by suggesting resuming joint military exercises which has been put to a halt since North Korea-U.S. summit on June 12, at a time when North Korea-U.S. denuclearization talks are suspended.
The U.S. Secretary’s comments do not mean that the joint military drill will resume immediately. South Korea and the United States postponed Ulchi Freedom Guardian and Korean Marine Exchange Program drills in July to September this year. Further plans have not been announced. However, Mattis mentioning the possibility of reopening the drills, following the cancellation of Mike Pompeo’s trip to North Korea, can suffice as a powerful warning to North Korea, because military pressure is known as to be most effective in bringing change in North Korea’s attitude.
North Korea has reacted sensitively to even small-scale U.S. military drills. North Korean news media recently denounced that U.S. special forces are secretly promoting operations to decapitate. We should wait and see how North Korea responds to Mattis’ latest comments, but it is likely that North Korea’s brinkmanship would surface once again. On the other hand, if North Korea opts to respond by nuclear and missile threats, the Korean Peninsula could roll back to volatile situations it has witnessed eight months earlier.
Against this background, the South Korean government has announced that the inter-Korean summit would take place as originally planned in September in Pyeongyang. The government seems to be unaware of how President Moon Jae-in’s visit to Pyeongyang, which is to happen after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to North Korea, most likely to take place after North Korea’s National Foundation Day (Sept. 9), would appear to the United States and the international community. The Trump administration has repeatedly sent out messages that “inter-Korean relations cannot proceed separately from the denuclearization issue,” not concealing its disapproval of “South Korea moving too fast.” The U.S. media has also expressed concerns on the lack of harmony between the United States and South Korea.
Yet, the South Korean presidential office Cheong Wa Dae claimed that President Moon’s role as a facilitator and moderator has grown more important. However, we should note that the inter-Korean summit in September was agreed without a specific date, under the precondition that North Korea-U.S. talks would progress to a certain point. With the preconditions unmet, however, all options need to be open. North Korea would not recognize our role as a facilitator for holding on to a meeting without even a specific date. If South Korea wishes to take on the role of a mediator, it has the option to meet in Panmunjom immediately, just as it previously did on May 26. If this is not feasible, it would be better to postpone inter-Korean talks only after North Korea-U.S. talks normalize. Such a flexible approach would bring both North Korea and the United States together.