This month’s U.S.-South Korea military exercises come after a record year of weapons activity by North Korea. In 2022, the nuclear-armed state fired over 70 missiles, including some with a potential of to reach mainland United States.
While most of these missiles fell into its own waters, North Korea last month threatened a possible longer-range launch into the Pacific.
“The frequency of using the Pacific Ocean as our shooting range depends on the nature of the U.S. military’s actions,” said Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of the North Korean leader.
To match growing nuclear threats from the Kim regime, Seoul and Washington have stepped up the combined training. The “Freedom Shield” drills bring together a large number of troops to train for a potential attack from nuclear-armed North Korea.
The allies are simulating amphibious assaults on North Korean beach defenses this week. The latest round of drills in South Korea also involves U.S. powerful strategic assets, such as a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.
The exercises highlight the disparities between the two rivals’ forces. North Korea’s massive ground force, whose goose-stepping soldiers are often paraded with fanfare, substantially outsizes that of the South, but the country’s Soviet-era military equipment pales in comparison to the technologically superior weapons systems of its opponents.
The recent deployment of U.S. strategic assets from nuclear submarines to bombers, appears to have especially aggravated Pyongyang, with a senior Foreign Ministry official threatening “an ultimate retribution,” ahead of the drills.
“Kim Jong Un’s biggest fears are embodied by the U.S. strategic assets, which have the destructive power to obliterate his regime at once,” said Chun Yung-woo a former South Korean nuclear negotiator with the North.
Such show of force with advanced weaponry, however, is also exploited by Pyongyang as an excuse for the regime’s military buildup, said David Maxwell, vice president of the Center for Asia Pacific Strategy.
“Kim needs to create the threat from the South and the U.S. to justify the sacrifices and suffering of the Korean people in the north as he prioritizes the development of nuclear weapons and missiles,” said Maxwell, who served in South Korea during his 30 years in the military.
North Korea’s issues with the allied military exercises helped Kim win a surprise concession on the issue from President Donald Trump in 2018.
Following the unprecedented summit between the two leaders, Trump ordered suspension of what he called a “war game” of “provocative” nature. Washington and Seoul then scaled back the combined military training to help diplomacy with Pyongyang. It was further downsized with the onset of the pandemic in 2020.
The full-scale exercises returned last year after South Korea’s conservative President Yoon Suk Yeol took office with a hardened stance against the North. Amid a prolonged stalemate in disarmament talks, Yoon vowed to closely work with the Biden administration to bolster their extended deterrence against growing nuclear threats.
“The DPRK has put us in a position to have to reinforce in tangible ways the security commitment that we have,” U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said this week, referring to North Korea by its official name.