US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin of the Joe Biden administration visited Japan and South Korea last week. On his way home, Blinken stopped in Alaska to meet with high-ranking Chinese officials. White House security adviser Jake Sullivan was also involved in the high-level talks between the United States and China. One of the important agendas of these chain talks is North Korea policy. The Biden administration, which has undertaken a review of its North Korean policy, is expected to announce its results within a few weeks. As the US has emphasized close consultations with Korea and Japan in the process of reviewing North Korea policy, the 2+2 talks with these allies are bound to become important.
By Prof. Jongho Kim Ph.D & SJD
Notable reports came out during such a sensitive period. US media such as Reuters and CNN reported that “the Joe Biden administration attempted diplomatic contact with North Korea behind the scenes in mid-February, but North Korea has not responded, including responses from Pyongyang.” These foreign media revealed that the reporter was a high-ranking official in the US government. This report raises two questions. One is, ‘Why is North Korea not responding?’ Another is, ‘Why did such sensitive reports come out at this time?’
Why is North Korea quiet? As the US presidential election approached in November 2020, several South Korean experts predicted North Korea’s provocation. Even during the US regime change, these predictions were popular. It appeared immediately after the inauguration of the Biden administration. However, North Korea’s nuclear test, called ‘provocation,’ has been suspended since September 2017, and its long-range rocket launch was the last in November of that year. Even if the category of ‘provocation’ was expanded to test firing of short-range projectiles, it has not yet occurred since the test launch of the ‘ultra-large fire cannon’ in March 2020. The expectation that North Korea will provoke to attract the attention of the new US administration, or to increase the ransom, is beautifully missed.
It’s not just this. North Korea did not have a common criticism statement even though Biden called Kim Jong-un a ‘tyrant’ during the presidential election. Also, for the 5th month since Biden was elected, it has not responded at all. There was no response when the Biden administration suggested additional sanctions against North Korea. It remained silent even when the Korean and US governments announced their intention to conduct joint training. The same was true even when it was announced that North Korea had hacked against a corona vaccine pharmaceutical company.
When the US State Department revealed its position at the UN Human Rights Council that the resolution on human rights in North Korea should be promoted, there is no response. Nonetheless, North Korea has neither openly proposed nor demanded anything from the Biden administration. It is all so far that the 8th party congress has revealed its principle position. Also, as previously introduced, it is not responding to the Biden administration’s contact proposal. Everyone may be curious about the direction of the new administration’s policy toward North Korea, but it is consistent with silence and disregard. This is the first time since the 1990s.
How can we understand these phenomena? Some have analyzed that North Korea is refraining from provocative words and actions in order not to stimulate the Biden administration. It is also said to be waiting for the results of the Biden administration’s reconsideration of North Korea policy. It’s something to watch, but there may be other possibilities. When the ‘top-down’ negotiations directed by President Kim Jong-un with President Moon Jae-in and former President Donald Trump ended with a devastating result, it may be a process of relining expectations for Korea and the United States and strengthening the determination to ‘live our way’ will be. In a word, it is ‘North Korean-style strategic patience.’ Then, why does the United States have no new policy toward North Korea at this point? How should Korea respond? The Biden administration has not published the results of a review of North Korea policy for two months after its inauguration and has not appointed a special representative for North Korea policy. Foreign policy priorities are also being pushed back. As a result, calls are being made both inside and outside the U.S. to criticize the passive attitude of the Biden administration and to express an active intention to engage.
At this very point, it is worth noting that a high-ranking official in the Biden administration leaked sensitive information to the media. This is because North Korea has succeeded in highlighting the fact that it is North Korea, not the United States, who refuses to talk by leaking North Korea’s refusal to contact the media. This also takes on the side of catching a baseline ahead of the 2+2 talks with the Moon Jae-in administration. At this meeting, South Korea is expected to urge the United States to talk with the United States, as the United States has been able to confide in concerns that North Korea is not responding to the offer for contact.
If North Korea fails to respond to exploratory dialogue, the United States has a greater likelihood that it will be difficult to grasp North Korea’s true intentions and re-release the existing approach by simply changing the packaging. Rather than actively seeking dialogue, sanctions against North Korea are maintained and strengthened, and the restoration and reinforcement of military cooperation between the US and Japan centered on the missile defense system (MD). This was the essence of the ‘strategic patience’ of the Obama administration.
The Biden administration will not use the same name, but it is very likely that a similar choice will be made. When this happens, the stalemate and deterioration of the situation on the Korean peninsula is fixed and the likelihood of prolonged prolongation increases, as it is combined with ‘North Korean-style strategic patience.’
To make matters worse, the Moon Jae-in administration’s position is also significantly narrowing. There are external factors, but factors of self-selection, such as the enforcement of ROK-US combined training and the continuation of large-scale armament reinforcement, are also playing a large role. Accordingly, there are some who argue that the Moon Jae-in administration should resolve to build a bridge or two to restore inter-Korean relations and the peace process on the Korean Peninsula for the remainder of the term.
First of all, they advise that the Biden administration’s policy toward North Korea should be devoted to the direction of problem-solving. It is argued that it is fundamental to persuade the Biden administration’s North Korea policy to include the content of ‘respecting and developing the Singapore-North Korea Joint Statement.’ It also explains that it is necessary to persuade them to reveal their position, “we will ease and resolve sanctions against North Korea in line with North Korea’s positive measures.”
As large-scale combined training in August this year meets with the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympic Games, it is also important to preemptively announce the stance of canceling combined training in August. As it has already risen to the world’s sixth-largest military power, it is said that it is deserving to refrain from large-scale military expansion. It is said that this is especially true because it has become self-evident that the continuation of large-scale combined training and military expansion and progress in peace and inter-Korean relations on the Korean peninsula are incompatible. However, I think these arguments are only one-sided arguments of the best coward in my opinion.
As mentioned above, Kim Jong-un’s “overlooking Biden’s attitude” (i.e., Kim’s silence) is the result of Moon Jae-in administration’s regret.
The 2021 ROK-US combined training, which took place on March 8-18 this year, without field maneuvering training, made his head tilted from the beginning. This is because the Joint Chiefs of Staff announced that the ROK-US joint training will be conducted only on March 7th, just one day before the start of the training. Combining the past experience of working at the Ministry of Defense in Korea and the analysis and message of the Pentagon officials and US concerned personnel who interact with the writer, this is a proof that the ROK and the United States held a ‘training negotiations’ while tug-of-war until the last minute. This means that the two countries had a great deal of disagreement over training. This can be largely analyzed in four branches. Briefly, it looks like this.
First of all, it is because the ‘Biden era’ has begun in the United States. At the North Korea-U.S. summit in Singapore on June 12, 2018, the then-U.S. President Donald Trump ‘passed’ the Moon Jae-in administration and presented a card to ‘Stop the ROK-US alliance training’ to North Korea. How to evaluate and respond to the president’s training cessation card may have affected the delay in the agreement.
Second, it is blamed for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s ‘walking around Biden.’ Chairman Kim publicly demanded that the US-ROK joint training be stopped at the 8th National Labor Party Congress of the North Korean Labor Party held on January 5-12, 2021. It seems to mean ‘overlooking Biden’ in response to the Biden government’s response to the ROK-US joint exercise.
Third, it is because of the Moon Jae-in administration’s last regret about the peace process on the Korean Peninsula. This is to secure the ‘momentum’ that can rescue President Moon’s peace process, which is almost stranded. It is likely that the compulsion to create a positive message at any rate to North Korea’s Chairman Kim, who demanded to stop training, was likely to have worked. Therefore, it seems to be the background of the delayed agreement with the US against this.
Finally, it is the end of the military procedure for the transition of wartime power during the term of President Moon. The Moon Jae-in administration would have wanted to include the final operational capability (FOC) verification process in the training content for OPCON conversion.
Now let’s look at it in detail. Prior to finalizing the ROK-US training plan, President Biden’s message was revealed through US Defense Department spokesman John Kirby. On March 2, a spokesman for the ROK-U.S. coalition exercised, “there must be assistance, the training details cannot be explained in detail, and the training must be conducted in the direction of a high level of readiness.” Spokesman Kirby, a former admiral of the Navy, is a military and diplomatic expert who worked as a spokesman for the State Department during the Obama administration and then a spokesman for the Defense Department of the Biden administration. Unlike Korea, the message of a spokesman for the US Department of Defense is characterized by being strict and concise. The message already contained all the intentions of the United States.
First of all, the words he emphasized first, “we must match the assistance,” is a textbook message that, of course, because it is a joint exercise between the two countries, the positions of the two countries must be coordinated. As it is an allied training, basic training content or schedule cannot be decided by either Korea or the United States. The United States respects the position of Korea, but there is a strong demand for Korea to respect the changed position of the United States.
It’s worth taking a closer look at the phrase “can’t elaborate on the details of training.” Regarding this year’s training, no official press releases could be found on the homepages of the Ministry of Defense, Joint Participation, and ROK-US Combined Command. On the other hand, on March 19, 2018, before the ROK-US joint training, the ROK-US CFC released a press release on the website entitled “CFC Announces Resumption of Key Resolve (KR) and Foal Eagle (FE) 2018.”
According to the press release at the time, (1) the Secretary of Defense of the Republic of Korea agreed to the annual combined exercise, including the practice of Key Resolve and Foal Eagle in 2018, and is scheduled to be conducted on a similar scale to the previous year. And, it notified that this exercise is an annual exercise of a defensive nature, and (3) it is stated that the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission is scheduled to visit to confirm compliance with the Armistice Agreement, as customary between the exercises. But this year, a spokeswoman for Kirby threw a message that “we can’t elaborate on the details of the training.” These announcements can be seen as a strong request and sharing by the US to the ROK government to treat the contents of the ROK-US joint exercises as military secrets.
This does not seem to be irrelevant to the New Year of North Korea’s Chairman Kim Jong-un and President Moon’s reaction to it. At the Labor Party’s 8th Congress, when Chairman Kim insisted, “in order to restore inter-Korean relations as in the ‘spring day of three years ago,’ we need to ‘stop’ combined ROK-US training.” It responded with the effect of this is the reason for the controversy that “should we ask the enemy for training.”
This is a message from the US indirectly staggering the Moon Jae-in administration, which repeatedly expressed its willingness to consult with the North Korean authorities on the contents of military exercises that require security. In fact, on February 5, the Korean Ministry of Defense responded to a written inquiry from a member of the National Assembly’s National Defense Committee (People Power Party) on “whether the training contents in 2021 are military secrets or not,” and it has been officially stated that “the contents related to the ROK-US joint exercises are classified as military secrets.”
The third message, “a direction to be highly prepared” by a spokesman Kirby, is a strong presentation of the basic US position on training content. Meanwhile, Kirby has repeatedly stressed that “tonight fight is not a simple slogan,” and said that the start date of the ROK-US joint exercises on March 5 has not been confirmed “we must have ready military capabilities for use when necessary.” Since the two countries’ approaches to the ROK-US joint training were different in the first place, the ‘training negotiations’ had to be lengthened.
As pointed out earlier, the best ‘spoil’ that Chairman Kim got at the Singapore talks in June 2018 was President Trump’s remarks on the cessation of joint training between the two Koreas. After the meeting, President Trump held a press conference at the Capella Hotel and said, “We will stop the war game. It is inappropriate to conduct ROK-US joint exercises.” There was also a side of ‘trade diplomacy’ to favorably lead the Korea-US defense cost-sharing negotiations at the time, but it was clear that the US President’s remarks to stop the joint training ‘passed’ the Korean government. I, who diligent researcher in this field, confirmed that in relation to President Trump’s remarks on the suspension of training, major officials of the ROK Ministry of Defense, including the Minister of Defense, had not consulted with the United States before the Singapore talks, nor did they know the details.
At the time of the meeting, Mr. Nam Kwanpyo, the second deputy head of the Blue House National Security Office, dispatched to Singapore, said, “The issue of halting the ROK-US joint training has not changed anything in the past.” We can see that it is not.
At the 2018 Singapore talks, the North Korean-U.S. leaders agreed on four issues: (1) establishment of new North Korean-US relations, (2) peace regime on the Korean Peninsula, (3) denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and (4) humanitarian issues. The agreement on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula was abolished. The reason that Chairman Kim returned empty-handed at the North Korea-US summit in Hanoi, Vietnam in February 2019, is because President Trump has already understood that North Korea is not willing to fulfill its commitment to denuclearization. In response to Chairman Kim’s diplomatic behavior, Secretary of State Tony Blinken of the Biden government also accused him of ‘theft diplomacy’ using Trump’s trade diplomacy.
As he did to the former president, Chairman Kim deceived President Biden and questioned whether he could continue diplomacy with the United States, which builds his diplomatic status while strengthening his nuclear capabilities. Until now, they have mobilized brilliant modifiers that cannot be counted, but the Moon Jae-in administration’s policy toward North Korea is becoming a hollow riverbed. North Korea’s nuclear capabilities have been strengthened even during the splendid “inter-Korean performance” of the three inter-Korean summits. The military agreement signed in September 2018 by the Moon Jae-in administration as a ‘new bible’ of inter-Korean relations was neutralized by the destruction of the joint office of the Kaesong Industrial Complex in North Korea, the attack by public officials of the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, and numerous missile tests. The Moon Jae-in administration’s vision to create a new “inter-Korean new economy” through UN sanctions has also become a “rice cake of pictures.” Efforts to establish a peace regime through the declaration of an end to the war are repeatedly frustrated.
Therefore, in the remainder of a year or so, President Moon Jae-in will want to create a large framework for the declaration of the end of the war, which is the highlight of the peace process on the Korean Peninsula. To that end, the change of Chairman Kim’s attitude is more important than anything else, but it seems unlikely that North Korea will declare denuclearization and abandon its nuclear weapons. However, even if the denuclearization measures are not taken, the embers of the peace process can survive if Chairman Kim visits Seoul or shows the resumption of dialogue between the United States and North Korea. In a way, it is time for Chairman Kim’s ‘decision.’ In the process of finalizing the ROK-US joint training plan, the Moon Jae-in administration seems desperately hoping to reduce or stop training.
Why did experts evaluate ‘OPCON conversion’ as impossible?
In early March, 35 members of the Democratic Party together demanded the suspension of the combined training, and Unification Minister Lee In-young also ordered a ‘flexible response,’ which in effect means postponing or halting the training. This is why training consultations with Biden’s government are inevitably longer to have “ready military capabilities that can use military power when needed.” Many experts who confirmed the contents of the ROK-U.S. coalition training gave an assessment that it is impossible to switch opposition rights within the Moon Jae-in administration’s term. Unlike in previous years, this training was conducted under strict security, but it was pointed out that the final operational capability (FOC) verification was omitted in the training content.
In 2014, the ROK-US agreed on the principle of ‘OPCON conversion based on three conditions.’ The three conditions are: (1) securing the ROK military’s ability to lead the ROK-US combined operational capabilities, (2) securing the ability to respond to North Korea’s nuclear and missile forces, and (3) changing the security environment on the Korean Peninsula and in the region. The most important of these conditions is the ROK military’s ability to lead the combined operational capabilities. To evaluate the ROK military’s ability to lead combined operations, 25 evaluation criteria and hundreds of detailed evaluation criteria for each field of operations, information, logistics, and communications were set. Through these evaluation criteria, the procedure to verify through the first stage initial operational capability (IOC), the second stage full operational capability (FOC), and the third stage full mission capability (FMC) has already been agreed.
In order to transfer OPCON, after going through the FOC and FMC through joint training, the defense ministers of both countries report the results to the presidents of both countries and finally determine the timing of the transition to OPCON. The Moon Jae-in administration would have wanted to verify the FOC through ROK-US joint training. However, the ROK-US combined training was called ‘Alliance 19-1’ in March 2019 immediately after the Singapore talks, and the name of ‘Alliance’ disappeared and was called ‘United Command Post Training’ in the first and second half of the year. It was reduced to a base-based command post training. In this process, the ROK-US coalition training, which is a ‘defensive training that guarantees peace,’ is rather recognized in the minds of the Korean people as an ‘offensive training’ that makes the situation on the Korean Peninsula unstable. He has fallen into a vulgar man position, who seems to be training inevitably. The Moon Jae-in administration’s attempts to verify the FOC with such command post training may have been negatively stanced by the Biden administration, which also seems to be the reason for the delay in the consultation process.
As the training began after the twists and turns, the Labor Party first vice president Kim Yeo-jeong, chairman Kim Jong-un’s younger brother, told the Labor Newspaper on March 16, “No matter what the South Korean authorities do as directed by their superiors, it will not be easy to return to the warm spring days three years ago.” She warned and went out. This refers to the fact that Chairman Kim Jong-un mentioned at the 8th Labor Party Congress in January that “the spring day three years ago could come back depending on the attitude of the South Korean authorities’.” She blamed that the South Korean authorities chose ‘March of war’ and ‘March of crisis,’ not ‘warm March,’ and said Vice President Kim Yeo-jeong “you have to feel it.” On the other hand, a brief warning was also sent to the Biden administration. “If it is a wish that you want to sleep for the next four years, it would be better not to create a job that will make you sleepless from the beginning.” It was a remark that came a day before US Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s visit to Korea. Contrary to their will, the ROK-U.S. coalition training began, saying to the Korean government that he had made a ‘quick choice,’ as if the highest authority blamed the negotiating delegation. This is the essence. This is also the reason why the ROK-US joint exercise was ‘condemned.’
Since 1954, the ROK-U.S. coalition training, held under various names and contents, has served as a shield against North Korea’s military provocations. And the source of tension on the Korean peninsula is not coalition training, but North Korea’s provocation, nuclear development, and Labor Party conventions.
As people know, North Korea’s provocation of the Korean War in 1950 brought the US troops back home to the Korean Peninsula. Subsequent military provocations by North Korea in the 1960s and 1970s created an environment for large-scale outdoor maneuvering exercises such as ‘Team Sprit Training.’ Nevertheless, the rapid invasion of the North’s consistent propaganda that ‘the ROK-US joint training makes the Korean peninsula tense’ rapidly infiltrating Korean society can jeopardize the national security.
Whether the ROK-US joint training is conducted and the content of the training can be adjusted at any time through consultation with the ROK-US within the framework of the alliance environment, alliance strategy, and North Korea strategy. However, the basic personality cannot and should not be changed. Who would believe if the Moon Jae-in administration prepared for the North Korean invasion through ROK-US joint training? Neither Korean Constitution nor the President of the United States will allow this. Therefore, North Korea’s claim that the Moon Jae-in administration’s combined training is recognized as a North Korean invasion and that the situation on the Korean peninsula is tense is self-confident. On the premise of this recognition, the fact that the Moon Jae-in regime’s personnel demanding to stop training is a self-confidence that the current government is preparing for the North Korean invasion through joint training.
Who are the people who reject peace on the Korean Peninsula? Emphasis on the necessity of the ROK-US joint exercise requires a determination to reject clearly the political frame defined as an anti-peace force and the temptation to use that frame politically.
Professor Kim Jongho is currently a professor at the Department of Law, Police, and Public Administration at Hoseo University in Korea. He received bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from SungKyunKwan law schools in Korea, and master’s and doctoral degrees from three law schools in the United States. He carefully study how business and financial institutions affect people’s lives, and he is also studying the impact of international transactions on regional security and economy. He advise the Korean government and local governments, and participate in various government-affiliated committees. He is also in charge of chairman of various academic organizations and editor of several journals. He is a senior researcher who has already published a hundreds of papers in international and Korean journals.