North Korea is suspiciously calm about one of its biggest complaints -- and it may be a trap for the US

Kim Hong-Ji-Pool/Getty ImagesA US soldier takes part in a Vigilant air combat exercise (ACE) on December 6, 2017 in Pyeongtaek, South Korea.
  • South Korea and the US are staging their annual military exercise in March.
  • North Korea frequently rails against the exercises and considers them a threat.
  • But during a watershed meeting with a South Korean envoy, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un reportedly said he understood South Korea’s stance on the matter.
  • Experts say Kim Jong-un’s response may have been calculated, and that the US could lose its footing on the Korean Peninsula.

After North Korean leader Kim Jong-un agreed to hold summit talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and the regime’s recent overtures toward peace, it seemed that years of tense relations between the US and South Korea were finally turning a corner.

But following a two-day diplomatic trip by a South Korean envoy to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, Kim Jong-un reportedly made another surprising gesture: he indicated that he “understands” the upcoming US-South Korean joint military drills – which he frequently railed against – must go forward later this month, a South Korean presidential official said on Tuesday.

“Our stance on the joint military drills is that it is hard to postpone the exercises again or suspend them and there is no justification for doing so,” the official said. “But Kim said that he understands the South’s stance.”

Kim Jong-un reportedly said he understood the drill would be of a similar scale as in previous years and made one request: to be acknowledged worldwide as a cooperative participant in the fledgling dialogue between the two Koreas and the US.

North Korea’s state-sponsored propaganda outlet frequently rails against the annual military drills – which it views as a simulated invasion – even though the US warns them in advance. On Saturday, the regime threatened to “counter the US” over the drills, and that it “will be made to own all responsibilities for the ensuing consequences.”

Wedge-ful thinking

But reports of Kim Jong-un’s apparently muted sentiments about the drills after his face-to-face meeting with the South Korean delegation is contrasted by his country’s propaganda, which may have been a strategic move.

Additionally, the US has been “driving a wedge” between itself and South Korea, thanks to President Donald Trump’s bluster about the region last year, University of Chicago political science professor Dr. Robert Pape said. Trump and North Korea frequently exchanged bellicose rhetoric throughout 2017, amid the North’s nuclear and missile tests.

“That nuclear brinkmanship Trump was playing with the North Korean regime was at the expense of risking millions of civilians in Seoul,” Pape told Business Insider. “And that is not lost on anybody in Seoul or Hawaii. The South Koreans are taking their security into their own hands.”

While policy experts theorise that North Korea’s latest call for peace may just be a ploy to drive a wedge between the US and South Korea, Pape believes that the US has already hurt its own standing with the South.

“The Americans are doing a fine job of driving a wedge between the US and South Korea,” Pape said. “And the North Koreans are just getting out of America’s way of creating a wedge.”

With a proverbial wedge potentially complicating US-South Korean relations, Kim Jong-un’s tepid response to the upcoming military drills may have been a calculated move, according to Pape.

Dubbed “Foal Eagle,” the roughly two-month joint military exercise comprises of thousands of US troops conducting air, ground, and naval maneuvers with their South Korean counterparts. This year, the exercise was pushed back because of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Offensive charm or charm offensive?

The US-South Korean drills are scheduled for late-March and comes at a critical point in negotiations with North Korea. Following the South Korean envoy’s meeting with Kim Jong-un, the officials travelled to Washington D.C to share details of their meeting with their US counterparts, national security adviser H.R. McMaster and CIA director Mike Pompeo.

“These exercises could actually end up pushing the US even more out of the actual core negotiations because if what you have here is the Americans causing trouble, to disrupt an otherwise peaceful track, that’s a problem for both North and South Korea,” Pape said.

Referring to North Korea, Pape said, “Even the steps they’re taking now, by not overreacting to American exercises, this is giving [the US] more rope to hang itself with the South Koreans.”

“They’re not caving – they’re making progress against us. North Korea is gaining another meaningful advantage here where they are building relations with our ally.”

A possible plan by North Korea to dilute US-South Korean relations, despite an apparent willingness to discuss denuclearization with the US, is not out of the ordinary, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS):

“North Korea’s willingness to talk to the United States is a step forward in averting a crisis, but the formulation conveyed by North Korea of ‘denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula’ is not new and reflects Pyongyang’s desire to achieve the end of US extended deterrence guarantees to its South Korean ally and the attenuation of the current alliance commitment,” CSIS Korea chairmembers Victor Cha and Lisa Collins wrote in a newsletter published this week.

Worries have grown whether Moon’s acceptance of North Korea’s call for peace is distancing itself from the US. South Korea’s Moon, a progressive successor to Park Geun-hye elected last year, has often found himself caught between Trump’s fiery tweets and North Korea’s missile tests.

But despite being accused by conservative lawmakers of falling under the spell of North Korea’s recent “charm offensive,” Moon has made clear that he is well aware of what’s at stake.

“As this is just the beginning, I believe we are not at a situation yet where we can be optimistic,” Moon said this week.

“Just because there are talks ongoing between North and South Korea, doesn’t mean international sanctions can be eased. There cannot be an arbitrary easing of sanctions; we do not wish to do that and I tell you now it is impossible.”

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