North Korea is issuing fresh threats against the United States as a 10-day computer-based military exercise gets under way on the Korean peninsula. It's an annual joint drill between American and South Korean forces, but this year, it comes following a bitter back-and-forth between North Korea and U.S. President Donald Trump.
Joint exercises happen twice a year — once in March, again in August. The U.S. has always maintained these are purely defensive and to keep the two militaries prepared in case of an unplanned event like a missile strike. North Korea, however, has long viewed the exercises as rehearsals for invasion. Its top propaganda paper, the Rodong Sinmun, on Sunday wrote the exercise is "the most explicit expression of hostility against" North Korea, would be like "pouring gasoline on fire" and worsen the state of the peninsula.
"The Korean People's Army is keeping a high alert, fully ready to contain the enemies. It will take resolute steps the moment even a slight sign of the preventive war is spotted," it said.
The August exercise — called Ulchi Freedom Guardian, or UFG — is a computer based simulation for unplanned events that include military actions but also terror or chemical attacks. This year, 17,500 members of the U.S. military and nearly 50,000 servicemembers from the South Korean military are taking part. Unlike the March exercise, UFG doesn't include live fire drills and happens concurrently with drills by local governments and civil servants to prepare South Korea's civil defenses.
While there is nothing inherently new about what's happening this year — the exercise has gone on since the mid-1970s — what's different is the context. It comes on the heels of North Korea testing two intercontinental ballistic missiles in July, and an announcement that it was examining a plan to possibly bracket Guam with missiles — a plan that is on hold. And, the tensions were ratcheted up further when President Donald Trump made threats of fire and fury to North Korea.
This year, the U.S. has scaled back the number of troops participating by about eight thousand, but Defense Secretary James Mattis says that's not because of heightened tensions. He told reporters fewer troops were needed because of integrating some roles and emphasizing command post operations. But, because of the increased attention on the Korean peninsula, North Korea's allies of China and Russia are making louder calls to freeze these exercises in the interest of getting North Korea back to the table to talk about de-escalating aggression on the peninsula.
China and Russia back an idea known in shorthand as "freeze for freeze" — suggesting that the U.S. and South Korea should suspend its large scale annual exercises in exchange for Pyongyang halting its nuclear and missile tests. So far the U.S. and South Korea have rejected this idea.
"As long as the threat from North Korea exists, we need to maintain a high state of readiness to respond to that threat," Dunford told reporters in Beijing last week. He said the military exercises are "not currently on the table as part of the negotiations in any way."
Jihye Lee contributed to this post.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
North Korea is issuing some fresh threats. This is as the United States and South Korea begin a 10-day joint military exercise on the Korean Peninsula. This is an annual drill - all of it, both the war games and the knee-jerk vitriol from Pyongyang. But this year, the bitter back-and-forth between North Korea's Kim Jong Un and President Trump may have raised the stakes. NPR's Elise Hu joins us from Seoul.
And Elise, I guess you just get used to covering these exercises if you're based in Seoul.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: Yeah, I think that this isn't the first time that we've talked about it in the last two and a half years I've been out here, David. That's for sure.
GREENE: Yeah. So what exactly is North Korea saying about these exercises?
HU: Well, like you mentioned, it's no secret that Pyongyang always complains about these joint exercises because Pyongyang really sees this as a provocation, as a pretext for invasion. They happen twice a year, though - one in March, a different one in August. And the U.S. has always maintained that they're purely defensive. But the North Korean state media has said yesterday - as recently as yesterday - that these exercises are like pouring gasoline on fire, essentially worsening the state of the peninsula right now.
GREENE: Hm, so they're trying to say that this is the - maybe that the U.S. and South Korea could back off since there are other tensions out there, and send a message that maybe that there is no military action forthcoming, or something like that. So what - so the United States says these are just exercises. They happen twice a year. What, exactly, is going to happen with this August exercise?
HU: The August exercise is called Ulchi Freedom Guardian, or UFG. It's largely computer-based. It's a simulation for preventing and fighting a North Korean attack, really. This exercise involves a lot of service members, some 17,000 from the U.S. military, nearly 50,000 from the South Korean military.
There is nothing inherently new about what's happening. This exercise has gone on under different names since 1976. What's different, of course, is the context. This comes after North Korea tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles in July. It then said it was examining a plan to possibly bracket Guam, the U.S. territory, with missiles.
That's a plan that's on hold now. And, of course, the tensions were ratcheted up further when President Donald Trump threatened North Korea with fire and fury.
GREENE: Well, so if North Korean aggression is even a tad bit less hypothetical at this moment, do you change these exercises in some way?
HU: The U.S. has actually scaled back the number of troops taking part this year by about 8,000. But Defense Secretary James Mattis says that's not because of the heightened tensions. He told reporters that fewer troops were needed because they were integrating some roles and emphasizing command post operations during the exercise.
But because of the increased attention on the peninsula right now, you are hearing louder calls from North Korea's more traditional allies of China and Russia to freeze the exercises in the interest of getting North Korea back to the negotiating table. China and Russia both support an idea known around here as freeze for freeze, suggesting that the U.S. and South Korea should freeze its annual exercises in exchange for Pyongyang halting or putting a pause on its nuclear and missile tests. So far, the U.S. and South Korea have rejected this idea outright, arguing it creates a false equivalence.
GREENE: And Elisa, briefly, I mean, you have North Korea saying that it would retaliate if it senses that the U.S. is going to strike any nuclear facilities there. Is that seen as a likely thing at all, right now?
HU: Highly unlikely. It's really considered a last resort.
GREENE: OK, that is NPR's Elise Hu, who is our correspondent based in Seoul. Elise, thanks a lot.
HU: You bet.
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