North Korea’s successful launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the U.S. mainland has resulted in considerable discussion around the planet.
Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced earlier this week that China’s de-escalation plan for the Korean Peninsula could start with the cancellation of large-scale exercises (such as UFG) and North Korea’s ballistic missile testing program and lead to multilateral talks.
Previous U.S. presidents have tried various approaches to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs — to no avail.
President Trump recently asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to use China’s considerable leverage to convince North Korea to cease its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. Instead, China increased its aid to North Korea earlier this year. China is unlikely to pressure North Korea at Trump’s request while the U.S. sells $1.4 billion of arms to Taiwan and accuses China of human rights violations.
Are we out of viable options to stop North Korea from threatening the U.S. and its Pacific allies with nuclear terror? Not necessarily.
If there is one thing that bothers the North Korean leadership more than anything, it is the annual combined U.S.-South Korea command military exercise, now known as Ulchi-Freedom Guardian (UFG). The U.S.-South Korean Combined Forces Command annually conducts this exercise for about two weeks toward the end of August and into early September. UFG began in 1976 as Team Spirit. Over the years, it grew from 107,000 U.S. and Republic of Korea troops to over 500,000 troops today.
To North Korea, this annual major military exercise looks like preparations for an invasion. In response, North Korea has lashed out with missile launches, artillery firings and intense propaganda.
However, North Korea has repeatedly announced that it would cease its nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs if the U.S. and South Korea terminated their annual exercise. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un would like nothing better than for this combined military exercise to end.
One diplomatic reason for not cancelling the UFG exercises is that it would appear as if North Korea was successfully blackmailing the U.S. What would North Korea insist on next?
After all, these combined exercises by the United States and South Korea are legal under international law, while North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs are not. If North Korea did not live up to its end of such an agreement, the U.S. and South Korea could resume UFG, as they did in 1998. As such, the argument that North Korea could seek further concessions is not credible.
If nothing significant changes, North Korea will further develop an intercontinental ballistic missile armed with a nuclear warhead capable of striking deeper into the United States (probably sooner rather than later). Everything previous administrations have tried since the 1970s has not come close to working. The result of all U.S. diplomatic efforts is a North Korea closer than ever to launching a nuclear weapons attack on the United States.
It’s time for a new approach. Cancelling the UFG exercise seems to be the best option to prevent the possibility of such an attack from becoming reality.
Oak Harbor resident Dr. Stephen Schwalbe is an associate professor at American Public University and an adjunct professor at Columbia College and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He received a Ph.D. in Public Administration and Public Policy from Auburn University in 2006. He served as a Defense attaché in Seoul, South Korea, from 1995 to 1997.