+ A

Full-court press

Aug 22,2017
Amid heightened tension from the North Korean nuclear threat, the Ulchi Freedom Guardian (UFG) military exercise continues from Monday to Aug. 31. Even though the joint Korea-U.S. drill is held annually, it has become a subject of contention.

Not surprisingly, the Global Times, China’s most belligerent English mouthpiece, reiterated a call for suspending Pyongyang’s nuclear development and the drill at the same time, citing the possibility that it will provoke the North. Liberal civic groups in South Korea joined the chorus by staging a rally in Gwanghwamun Square and in front of the Blue House.

But this time, the arguments for the suspension of the drill and a pullout of U.S. Forces from South Korea was made by mainstream media in the United States, as well. The New York Times said that the suspension could serve as a useful card in negotiations with North Korea, while the Washington Post reported that a peace deal between Washington and Pyongyang could be a way to address the North Korean nuclear problem.

However, the joint drill has been a symbol of the blood tie between the two allies since the Korean War. A demand for its suspension is therefore outright ludicrous. The unusual visits to Seoul by Adm. Harry Harris, U.S. Pacific Command commander, and Gen. John. E. Hyten, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, on Sunday, demonstrate the significance of the drill. For his part, South Korean President Moon Jae-in underscored in Monday’s cabinet meeting that the drill is not aimed at ratcheting up military tension on the peninsula, but rather is conducted for defensive purposes only.

But it’s worth noting the reduction of U.S. soldiers joining the UFG drill this year, by as many as 7,500, which could signify an attempt by Uncle Sam at appeasement, especially after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un withdrew his threat to fire ICBMs around Guam. But our government must ease growing public concern about the possibility of Washington bypassing Seoul in its strategic decisions over the fate of the peninsula.

Of course, we don’t regard the drill as something sacrosanct. If North Korea scraps its nuclear weapons and missiles program once and for all, we can consider a suspension of the drill. But it is very dangerous to call for a suspension of the drill and a withdrawal of U.S. forces while the peninsula is teetering on the brink of war. Steve Bannon, U.S. President Donald Trump’s chief strategist, was ousted after an interview in which he proposed the idea of pulling out American forces if Beijing forces Pyongyang to freeze its nuclear and missile programs. This testifies to the volatility of the issue. It’s not time for dialogue with Pyongyang. It’s time for maximum pressure.

JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 22, Page 30