The Foal Eagle/Key Resolve joint military exercises held by the United States and South Korea kicked off on 11 March, 2013 amid strong threatening statements issued by North Korea. Since 1976 these exercises have been held annually with the aim of enhancing the ROK-U.S. alliance’s war plans, particularly in the complicated logistical aspects of bringing in troops from outside the Korean Peninsula. North Korea views Foal Eagle/Key Resolve as particularly threatening and makes regular statements protesting the staging of such exercises. Coming after tensions following North Korea’s third nuclear test, Pyongyang’s reaction to the current exercises has been particularly tough. Notably on March 5, 2013, the Korean People’s Army Supreme Command announced that it would nullify the armistice agreement that has stood in place of a peace treaty since the end of the Korean War. Although the statement was timed with the passage of UN Resolution 2094 that placed further sanctions against North Korea for its third nuclear test, the announcement cited the planned joint military exercises as one of the main factors for its decision. This was made clear in the statement which stated, “The Supreme Command of the KPA will completely declare invalid the AA, which has existed for form’s sake from March 11, the day when the war maneuvers will enter into a full-dress stage.” Does this represent a new-level of threats to?
Previous research by Vito D’Orazio on North Korea’s responses to ROK-U.S. military exercises has shown that Pyongyang does not systemically increase its threatening rhetoric or behavior during joint military exercises. This was is mainly due to the fact that North Korea regularly issues threats all year round, not just in response to military exercises. In fact, looking at North Korea’s response to the Foal Eagle/Key Resolve exercises since 2008, the year the exercises were configured in this current format, shows a familiar pattern. First there is a strong statement issued by the KPA, then the Ministry of Foreign Affairs makes its own statement on “war or dialogue,” and finally the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea releases its own commentary lashing out at South Korea and the United States. Even the threat to nullify the armistice agreement is not new. For example in 2003 around the height of tensions with United States over its nuclear program, Pyongyang made a similar threat just before joint military exercises were to be held.
Given this repeated behavior, what is different this time? While some of the threats issues have been made before, the way in which they were delivered was different. The statement by the KPA Supreme Command to nullify the armistice agreement was a televised address made by General Kim Yong Chol who is chief of the General Reconnaissance Bureau, an organization tasked with conducting operations against South Korea. Given that General Kim is widely believed to be behind the sinking of the Cheonan and the attack on Yeonpyeong Island, it was symbolic that he delivered the speech. By having somebody responsible for carrying out operations against South Korea, Pyongyang intended to signal that future provocations would not be limited to the disputed Northern Limit Line in the West Sea, but could happen anywhere of its choosing.
However, what is more important is what this tells us about how the North Korean leadership perceives of the current international environment. Given the passage of UN Resolutions 2087 and 2094, it is important to think about the North Korean leadership’s perceptions of the current Foal Eagle/Key Resolve. In this regard, we should consider the example of how the Soviet Union perceived of the Able Archer exercise held by NATO in 1983 which is covered well by David E. Hoffman. What was a high-level command exercise was perceived by Moscow as a ruse to nuclear first strike against it. At the time, the Soviet leadership believed that the United States would launch a first strike under the cover of a military exercise. This was mainly due to the fact that Soviet military plans for a first strike followed similar thinking. The realistic nature and high-level nature of the exercise was perceived by the Soviets as the prelude to a nuclear first strike. Fortunately, Moscow did not overreact but it shows the dangers of misperceptions.
Looking at North Korea today, it is possible that such similar perceptions and fears of the current joint military exercises could be manifesting themselves through the threats seen in recent official statements. Again referring to the March 5 statement to nullify the armistice agreement, North Korea expresses grave fears, “unlike last year the current joint military exercises will be participated in by super-large nuclear-powered carrier task force carrying at least 100 nuclear warheads, B-52H strategic bombers and other means of the U.S. imperialist aggression forces for making ground, sea and air nuclear strikes.”
While it may be a stretch to say that North Korea perceives of the current exercises as a cover for a nuclear strike, it is still important to carefully understand more about how they interpret the staging of joint military exercises. The case of how the Soviet Union misinterpreted the Able Archer exercises in 1983 shows how a paranoid and inward-looking regime can easily misread the signals. Peter Hayes has talked about how the deployment of B-52Hs for the current joint military exercises has a significant psychological impact upon the regime. While B-52Hs have important conventional as well nuclear roles, it is crucial to understand how publicizing their involvement in the joint military exercises is interpreted in North Korea. Given the dangers of misinterpretation and miscalculation, thought should be given to the kind of message that is trying to be relayed to Pyongyang.