Despite repeated warnings from Pyongyang, the United States and South Korea commenced an 11-day period of war drills on Monday under some of the most extraordinary international tensions seen in the Pacific in decades. The drills, which take place on an annual basis, have drawn harsh criticism from both North Korea and China. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has characterized the drills as preparation for invasion, and there is ample reason even for reasonable experts to wonder if – this year – he might not be right.
North Korea has, after all, changed the game in a big way over the last six months. With tests of ballistic missile technology clearly capable of hitting the U.S. mainland, Kim Jong Un has proven to the world that he is deadly serious about turning North Korea into a nuclear superpower. And while both Kim and President Trump have taken their respective threats down a notch or two from earlier this month, the specter of war looms more darkly than it has in a long, long time.
On Sunday, North Korean state media said that the decision to hold the drills this year was a “reckless” move that could lead to the “uncontrollable phase of a nuclear war.” This rhetoric, however, did not stop Washington and Seoul from moving forward with the drills. More than 17,000 U.S. troops joined roughly 50,000 South Korean soldiers on Monday to begin the largely computer-simulated war games. Both governments insist that the practice drills are entirely defensive in their simulations. And on Monday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in stated the obvious: the North has no business using the drills as an excuse for attack, since it is Kim Jong Un’s provocations that make the drills necessary in the first place.
Obviously, Pyongyang does not see it that way.
“If the United States is lost in a fantasy that war on the peninsula is at somebody else’s door far away from them across the Pacific, it is far more mistaken than ever,” said the North’s official state newspaper. The paper went on to call the military drills an “explicit expression of hostility” and suggested that “no one can guarantee that the exercise won’t evolve into actual fighting.”
President Trump has won (grudging) praise from military analysts for forcing Kim Jong Un into a tight spot and convincing the UN to announce a new round of harsh sanctions against the totalitarian regime. That said, the administration is now struggling to overcome internal strife in the form of newly-dismissed chief strategist Steven Bannon. In a stunning interview with The American Prospect last week, Bannon said that any military option pertaining to North Korea was off the table.
“There’s no military solution, forget it,” Bannon said. “Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.”
Whether this emboldens Kim Jong Un or not remains to be seen. But as the U.S. and Seoul commence their drills this week, it is clear that the “solution” to this potentially-disastrous problem is still a long way off.