Is There a Peaceful Way to End North Korea's Nuclear Threat to the US?
By Dr. Stephen Schwalbe
Faculty Member, Public Administration at American Public University
North Korea’s successful launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the U.S. mainland has resulted in U.S., South Korea and Japan calling for an emergency session of the UN Security Council, scheduled for Wednesday, July 5.
The launch of the Hwasong-14 ICBM comes as President Trump prepares for his first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Germany later this week.
Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced earlier this week that China’s de-escalation plan for the Korean Peninsula would start with the cancellation of large-scale exercises (such as UFG) and North Korea’s ballistic missile testing program and lead to multilateral talks.
Previous U.S. presidents have tried various approaches to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs – to no avail.
President Trump has asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to use China’s considerable leverage to convince North Korea to cease its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. Instead, China increased its aid to North Korea earlier this year. China is unlikely to pressure North Korea at Trump’s request while the U.S. sells $1.4 billion of arms to Taiwan and accuses China of human rights violations.
Stopping a Nuclear North Korea: US-South Korea Military Exercise Is An Option
Are we out of viable options to stop North Korea from threatening the U.S. and its Pacific allies with nuclear terror? Not necessarily.
If there is one thing that bothers the North Korean leadership more than anything, it is the annual combined U.S.-South Korea command military exercise, now known as Ulchi-Freedom Guardian (UFG).
The U.S.-South Korean Combined Forces Command annually conducts this exercise for about two weeks toward the end of August and into early September. UFG began in 1976 as Team Spirit. Over the years, it grew from 107,000 U.S. and Republic of Korea troops to over 500,000 troops today.
The UFG military exercise is primarily designed to test defenses in South Korea against a North Korean attack. UFG has become the world’s largest computer command and control exercise, involving American and South Korean forces in realistic combat environments.
UFG Military Exercise Proves Combat Readiness
To North Korea, this annual major military exercise looks like preparations for an invasion. In response, North Korea has lashed out with missile launches, artillery firings and intense propaganda.
However, North Korea has repeatedly announced that it would cease its nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs if the U.S. and South Korea terminated their annual exercise. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un would like nothing better than for this combined military exercise to end.
Cancelling UFG Would Not Be Unprecedented
To facilitate negotiations between North and South Korea during an extremely tense environment on the Korean Peninsula in the mid-1990s, Team Spirit was cancelled from 1994 to 1996. When negotiations eventually broke down, the exercise series was resumed under the name Ulchi-Focus Lens (UFL). The UFL name was later changed to UFG in 2008, due to changes in the CFC.
One diplomatic reason for not cancelling the UFG exercises is that it would appear as if North Korea was successfully blackmailing the U.S. What would North Korea insist on next?
After all, these combined exercises by the United States and South Korea are legal under international law, while North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs are not. If North Korea did not live up to its end of such an agreement, the U.S. and South Korea could resume UFG, as they did in 1998. As such, the argument that North Korea could seek further concessions is not credible.
The US Should Halt the UFG Exercise
If nothing significant changes, North Korea will further develop an intercontinental ballistic missile armed with a nuclear warhead capable of striking deeper into the United States (probably sooner rather than later). Everything previous administrations have tried since the 1970s has not come close to working. The result of all U.S. diplomatic efforts is a North Korea closer than ever to launching a nuclear weapons attack on the United States.
It’s time for a new approach. Cancelling the UFG exercise seems to be the best option to prevent the possibility of such an attack from becoming reality.
About the Author
Dr. Stephen Schwalbe is an associate professor at American Public University. He is also an adjunct professor at Columbia College and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Stephen received a Ph.D. in Public Administration and Public Policy from Auburn University in 2006. He served as a Defense attaché in Seoul, South Korea, from 1995 to 1997.