The annual joint military training exercises being conducted by the United States and South Korea have been accompanied by the expected - reciprocal missile launches from North Korea - and the unexpected - an assault on the U.S. ambassador to South Korea by a radical Korean nationalist. Washington and Seoul say these regularly scheduled drills are necessary to demonstrate military readiness and resolve, but they also increase tensions and the potential for conflict on the Korean peninsula.
The annual exercises mobilize around 10,000 South Korean and 8,000 U.S. troops to conduct land, sea and air maneuvers. They also utilize computer-simulated conflict scenarios that involve responding to attacks and incursions from the North.
U.S. Rear Admiral Lisa Franchetti said these are defensive drills only, designed to enhance U.S. and South Korean operational proficiency.
“Our goal is to be able to work together to deter any type of activity by North Korea and if necessary to defend the Republic of Korea,” said Franchetti.
Pyongyang has protested these drills as provocative rehearsals for a possible invasion. In response North Korea, as it had during past drills, conducted missile launches on two occasions.
While these exercises may increase tensions in the region, Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea analyst with the International Crisis Group, said they actually keep the peace by projecting military strength.
“The instrument for resolving political disputes both internally in Pyongyang and externally is force. So if they see a weakness they will exploit that weakness,” said Pinkston.
Still there is always the possibility that something unexpected could trigger armed conflict when opposing armies are practicing for war. Pinkston said he is most concerned that North Korean operational commanders, who have been conditioned to believe the United States and South Korea are planning to invade the North, may misread the intent of the joint maneuvers.
“Or [there’s a possibility] it’s interpreted incorrectly, or there is a local commander who is over zealous and sees an opportunity to respond and shoot down an aircraft after firing at ships, or something like that, that’s what I’m most worried about,” said Pinkston.
What did not spark a wider conflict this year was the recent attack on the U.S. ambassador in Seoul by a South Korean radical nationalist. The ambassador was not seriously hurt and the lone assailant is not believed to be connected to North Korea, even though Pyongyang called the attack a just punishment.
That attack seemed to only increase South Korean support for the strong military alliance between Washington and Seoul.
VOA Seoul Producer Youmi Kim contributed to this report.