North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, never explicitly said he would not fire missiles at the US territory of Guam, and a US-South Korea military drill that starts Monday may test his resolve and measure just how bold he’s willing to be.
Ulchi-Freedom Guardian involves tens of thousands of troops from both nations drilling to achieve peak readiness in the case of conflict. Each year, the exercises expand slightly, and each year, North Korea issues threats in response.
When North Korea announced last week that it had presented to Kim plans to strike at Guam, it included de-escalatory language that seemed to invite the US to tone down its military exercises.
But as Heather Nauert, a State Department spokeswoman, said on Tuesday, the US has no plans to do so.
Nauert repeated the US’s talking point on military exercises on the Korean Peninsula, saying “there’s no moral equivalency” between North Korea’s illegal nuclear and missile testing and the US’s regularly scheduled, internationally monitored, and completely legal bilateral drills.
Even in light of the recent high tensions and brinkmanship between the US and North Korea, the so-called double freeze — the idea often floated by China and North Korea that the US would stop military exercises and limit or eliminate its presence in North Korea in exchange for denuclearization — won’t budge.
While North Korean media said US military exercises tested Kim’s “self-restraint,” the odds of the country firing a missile toward Guam remain slim. North Korea simply lacks the capability to do so in a way that wouldn’t open it up to international embarrassments, such as the missiles failing or being shot down by the US.
The lack of concessions from the US indicates it’s up to North Korea to back down at some point and offer more favourable terms for a compromise. But as North Korea is expected to perfect its thermonuclear intercontinental ballistic technology within a few short years, it’s hard to imagine it caving to US pressure now.
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