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By Dr. Stephen Schwalbe
Faculty Member, Public Administration at American Military University
The Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, is scheduled to end on Sunday, February 25. The prelude to these Olympic games was an increasingly hostile environment between North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump.
For decades, North Korean leaders have been worried about the massive combined military exercises conducted by South Korea and the United States, including Ulchi-Freedom Guardian (UFG), Foal Eagle and Key Resolve. To Pyongyang, these exercises appear to be preparations for an invasion of the North.
UFG is an annual command, control and field training exercise. It involves around 50,000 South Korean troops and 17,500 U.S. forces conducted in late summer.
Foal Eagle is a large field training exercise conducted every fall. Key Resolve is a command post exercise conducted every winter. Like UFG, Foal Eagle and Key Resolve involve both U.S. and South Korean troops.
On the other hand, the United States is increasingly alarmed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons underground testing and its ballistic missile launches.
North Korea Will Soon Be Able to Target Its Nuclear Warheads on US
At some point soon, North Korea will have an operational weapon system capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to any U.S. location. Intelligence Community estimates indicate that North Korea already possesses at least a dozen such nuclear weapons. The most effective way for North Korea to deploy these nuclear weapons is on ballistic missiles.
However, North Korea has not yet perfected deploying a nuclear warhead on its ballistic missiles. To do so requires technical expertise and testing.
Olympics Opening Dialogue between North and South Korea
The Winter Olympic Games have opened a window of opportunity for North and South Korea to continue diplomatic negotiations at some level. The seed for resolving the current crisis on the Korean Peninsula has been sown. We just need to carefully tend to that seed to ensure it germinates and blossoms into a full-fledged peace.
The key to bringing about that peace is for North and South Korea to continue talking. The two events that would immediately kill that peace effort would be:
- North Korea testing another nuclear weapon or launching a ballistic missile
- South Korea conducting a major military exercise with the U.S. that the North would perceive as preparations for an invasion
South Korea and US Continuing Joint Military Exercises
At this time, it seems unlikely that Pyongyang will do anything to jeopardize the current situation. However, the same cannot be said for the U.S. and South Korea.
These allies insist on going ahead with their plans to conduct Key Resolve 2018 shortly after the Olympics end. That would be a major mistake and put the three nations back on the same path to nuclear war that they were on prior to the Winter Olympics.
I previously recommended that South Korea and the U.S. consider cancelling the major combined military exercises and conducting smaller exercises instead. They would not be perceived in Pyongyang as a potential invasion of North Korea.
Other countries such as China and think tanks such as the International Crisis Group have suggested “freezing” the bilateral military exercises. However, what Washington expects from North Korea for this significant concession is for Kim to end his nuclear program and to give up all his nuclear weapons.
Demanding that North Korea Relinquish its Nuclear Weapons Is Unrealistic
For North Korea, the nuclear weapons genie is already out of the bottle and cannot be put back. Demanding that North Korea relinquish its nuclear weapons is unrealistic. Perhaps there is another reason for this demand, which would likely result in conflict on the Korean Peninsula.
As long as the North does not test launch any more ballistic missiles, Kim cannot reliably deliver a nuclear weapon. This is crucial. No country can hide a ballistic missile launch. Moreover, China has said it will not allow North Korea to resume ballistic missile testing if Washington and Seoul end their combined military exercises.
There is another possible option as well. South Korea could unilaterally cancel its major military exercises with the U.S. in the interest of world peace.
Other issues that could be negotiated afterward include returning refugees and allowing family reunions in the Mount Kumgang Resort in North Korea. The two Koreas could create a peace treaty to replace the Korean Armistice Agreement signed on July 27, 1953, which brought about a ceasefire on the Korean Peninsula.
If the Koreas Negotiate a Peace Treaty There Could be Nobel Prizes for Both
If the two Koreas can negotiate a peace treaty that officially ends the Korean War, perhaps the major military exercises, ballistic missile launches, economic sanctions and general overall hostility would abate. Instead of increasing threat levels, we might see Nobel Peace Prizes awarded to the leaders of North and South Korea. Given the alternative, let’s give peace a chance.
About the Author
Dr. Stephen Schwalbe is an associate professor at American Military University. He retired as a Colonel in the U.S. Air Force after 30 years of service. He served as a Defense Attache in South Korea in the 1990s.