ABC News reports that the United States suspended and then resumed joint military exercises with South Korea this week after North Korea fired artillery shells across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Assistant Secretary of Defense David Shear gave reporters the news Friday, August 21, at a Pentagon briefing. Shear said the suspension was to allow for talks with South Korean allies "on the subject of the exchange fire across the DMZ." The exercises have since resumed, he said.
This brought to mind a similar decision made more than two decades ago. Back in the winter of 1992, when I was U.S. consul in Busan, Korea, and living on the U.S. military base, Camp Hialeah, I received some startling news: the George H.W. Bush Administration had decided to cancel the annual Team Spirit military exercises conducted with our South Korean allies. U.S. diplomats and their families at the time were required to have housing on a U.S. military base for security reasons: anti-American students had previously attempted to set fire to the U.S. consulate building downtown. So my family and I had grown used to the annual winter ritual of seeing stateside soldiers from places like Fort Lewis, Washington, setting up tents around our housing as the exercises commenced.
Seoul and Pyongyang had just entered into a Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, negotiated in December 1991, where the two governments agreed “not to test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy, or use nuclear weapons; to use nuclear energy solely for peaceful purposes; and not to possess facilities for nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment.” On January 30, 1992, more than six years after first acceding to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), Pyongyang also concluded a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
It was therefore determined in Washington, in consultation with our South Korean allies, that the annual large-scale joint Team Spirit military exercise, scheduled for March 1992, was an irritant to North Korea and should be cancelled in the interests of promoting the denuclearization agreement.
In September 1992, however, IAEA inspectors, after conducting initial inspections of North Korean nuclear facilities, discovered “discrepancies.” Following the November 1992 U.S. presidential election, the Bush Administration thus handed over a brewing nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula to the incoming Clinton Administration.
In February 1993, North Korea refused IAEA access to two additional sites, used for storing nuclear waste, where suspected “cheating” was taking place. The next month Pyongyang announced its unilateral withdrawal from the NPT. By June of 1994 the crisis had morphed into the greatest threat to peace and security on the Korean peninsula since the War. Former Secretary of Defense William Perry noted in an October 20, 2002 opinion piece in the Washington Post that he had “readied plans for striking at North Korea's nuclear facilities and for mobilizing hundreds of thousands of American troops for the war that probably would have followed.” As many recall, a last-minute phone call from former President Jimmy Carter to Washington, after a meeting with then North Korean leader Kim Il-sung in Pyongyang, is what brought the world back from the brink of a second Korean War.
So, how did Pyongyang’s leaders interpret the suspension in 1992 of the Team Spirit exercise, a defensive exercise held both for military preparedness and to reassure our South Korean allies of our commitment to security and peace on the Korean peninsula? Did they see it as a sign of good will? In fact they responded with defiance – blocking IAEA inspections and threatening to withdraw from the NPT. As North Korean expert Chuck Downs, in his ground-breaking work Over the Line: North Korea’s Negotiating Strategy has pointed out brinksmanship is the modus operandi for North Korea’s Kim family. Thus seeking to placate their regime is only playing the diplomatic game on their terms. The disappointing results of the 1992 cancellation of the Team Spirit military exercise is further proof of Mr. Down’s thesis.