The first week of March marks the start of Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, which – together with Ulchi Freedom Guardian in the late summer – are the largest U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) military exercises held in South Korea each year. They consist of two separate drills, with Key Resolve lasting around one week and involving drills at the command level and Foal Eagle lasting around two months and involving field-training exercises that combine air, land, and sea elements. The exercises have been conducted since 2002 in their current tandem form. In recent years they have involved a combined total of around 12,500 U.S. troops and more than 200,000 South Korean troops, with significantly more participating in Foal Eagle than Key Resolve.
Spring exercise season each year brings some fairly predictable behavior, prompting the baseline of U.S. and ROK tensions with North Korea to increase a few notches for the duration of the drills – like the peninsula’s version of groundhog’s day. Year after year, the U.S. emphasizes the routine, defensive nature of the exercises and stresses that they are not related to “current situations” on the peninsula or elsewhere in the world. In turn, North Korea, year after year, equates the exercises to war preparations for which it will retaliate (using different variants of more colorful language) and makes every effort to link the exercises to other issues.
This year, so far, has been no exception. In January, North Korea offered to suspend nuclear tests in exchange for halting the drills. The U.S. promptly rejected this offer as a “non-starter.” Pyongyang also attempted to establish the cancellation of the exercises as a precondition for inter-Korean talks, which South Korean President Park Geun-hye has urged in recent months as part of her broader policy to lay the groundwork for unification. Seoul dismissed this proposal, noting that “such issues need to be discussed at inter-Korean talks.” More recently, North Korea conducted short-range missile tests and an island attack and seizure simulation near Yeonpyeong-do – the South Korean island in the Yellow Sea that North Korea shelled in 2010. These sorts of North Korean actions, while far from friendly, are not out of the ordinary for spring exercise season, which regularly involves Pyongyang’s own attempts to demonstrate capabilities alongside the US-ROK exercises.
What to make of this cyclical posturing from both sides? Do these exercises – and the accompanying platform they provide for each side to dig in their heels on the issues of the day – merely play in repeat mode year after year? In short: no. A brief review of spring exercise season over the past two years reveals the extent to which these drills, despite the routine nature of basic playbooks, can be fairly consequential in either heightening hostility levels on the peninsula or scaling them down. In 2013, the exercises began in the midst of pitched tensions following North Korea’s third nuclear test. Pyongyang turned up the heat further in the early days of the drills, going beyond its usual rhetoric by declaring the 1953 Korean War armistice nullified and threatening a nuclear attack on the U.S. mainland. The U.S. countered with its own unambiguous escalatory signal: incorporating F-22 stealth fighter jets, B-2 stealth bombers, and B-52 bombers into the drills. Overall tensions remained higher than usual for a number of months, a period that U.S. officials referred to as the most dangerous since the Korean War.
The 2014 exercises, in contrast, began on the heels of the highest-level inter-Korean government meeting since President Park entered office and involved signaling of the opposite nature. During the first week of the drills, North Korea made the somewhat unexpected move of allowing reunions for family members separated since the Korean War to proceed (following threats to cancel them because of the exercises). President Park followed up with an announcement, also in the midst of the drills, that South Korea would work with Russia to develop rail and maritime links between Russia, North and South Korea. The U.S. also downscaled the military hardware involved in the exercises, excluding aircraft carriers and nuclear-capable strategic bombers.
What might we expect in 2015? Looking back only two years and given the volatile nature of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, it is difficult to make any definitive predictions. Yet the 2013 and 2014 spring exercise seasons suggest two takeaways that might help in assessing this year’s drills. First, the way in which the exercises are handled plays a role in managing broader tensions. The U.S. has not cancelled the exercises in response to North Korean requests since the 1990s. But it has used more subtle signals – scaling down drills in 2014, for instance, or minimizing their publicity – to indicate openness to more cooperative relations.
Second, the atmospherics surrounding the exercises tend to reflect pre-existing moods in inter-Korean and U.S.-North Korea relations. This year brings a mixed bag. The two Koreas appear to be moving, in fits and starts, toward a new set of official meetings and possibly a high level summit. On the other hand, U.S.-North Korea relations, in the wake of the Sony hacking incident and new sanctions, have seen better days. But the overall tendency of the Obama administration has been to follow the lead of Seoul on North Korea issues. The upshot: barring wild card provocations similar to the 2010 Yeonpyeong-do shelling or long-range missile or nuclear tests, always a possibility under Kim Jong Un, the next couple of months should look more like 2014 than 2013.
Overall, Key Resolve and Foal Eagle tend to churn up a broad range of issues beyond military exercises. But the U.S. and South Korea, for good reason, try to keep them as focused as possible on the business at hand: ensuring the joint readiness of U.S. and ROK forces to counter an ever-evolving North Korean threat. Fewer sideshows mean that systems, old and new, can be tested without distraction. This year the littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth, tailored for shallow coastal waters like those surrounding island flashpoints in the East and South China Seas, will be incorporated into Foal Eagle for the first time. The results of this testing will have implications for U.S. and allied capabilities far beyond the peninsula. Let’s hope for a spring without fanfare.