The US military is holding exercises in South Korea amid increased tensions with North Korea, whose leader Kim Jong Un has ordered his country’s nuclear weapons to be at the ready.
About 2,100 Marines and sailors along with the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard and the amphibious dock landing ships Ashland and Germantown recently arrived in South Korea for exercise Ssang Yong 16, which began on March 2 and lasts until March 20, Marine Corps officials said.
Held every two years, the exercise involves US and South Korean troops conducting amphibious operations for possible disaster relief or wartime missions, said 2nd Lt. Joshua Hays, a Marine Corps spokesman .
Meanwhile, North Korea has recently tested a nuclear weapon and fired six projectiles into the sea, just as it did in 2013, said Bruce Klingner, a Korea expert at the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, D.C.
“Things could get dicey in the next couple months,” Klingner said in an interview. “We’re already seeing North Korea starting to issue threats: If the U.S. doesn’t stop these exercises or doesn’t cancel these exercises, North Korea may take appropriate action. They also highlight that there are a number of strategic assets that will be part of it: nuclear-capable submarines, B-52s, F-22s, etc., special forces Marines — all of which, in North Korean eyes, or the North Korean depiction, is a prelude to an attack on North Korea.”
It is unclear whether North Korea actually believes that the exercise is camouflage for an invasion by the U.S. and South Korea or it is trying to frighten South Korea into canceling the exercise, but with the militaries from both sides operating so closely to each other, the chances of something going wrong increases, Klingner said.
“In their statements, they certainly declare that they see the potential for a U.S. attack,” he said. “They will point to U.S. attacks on Libya and Iraq and Serbia as indicative of what the U.S. and its allies might do to them.”
The North Koreans are particularly wary at seeing Marines on the Korean peninsula, Klingner said. In September 1950, Marines and soldiers launched an amphibious landing at Inchon that stopped the North Korean advance south and led to UN forces crossing the 38th parallel into North Korea.
“Gen. B.B. Bell, the former commander in chief of U.S. Forces Korea, said that the Marines on Okinawa were his maneuver unit,” Klingner said. “They were the ones that would carry out operations behind the front lines, behind the DMZ [demilitarized zone].
“The North Koreans know that. They know the history of the Marine Corps, so they would see a large presence of Marines on the peninsula as possibly a prelude to an attack or an invasion — especially when it’s coupled with the presence of B-52s and nuke-capable submarines.”
The current exercise, however, was scheduled long before the most recent tensions on the Korean peninsula, said retired Army Special Forces Col. David Maxwell, associate director at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University. For decades, the U.S. has held combined military exercises with South Korea during this time of year to send a message to North Korea.
The North Korean military is about to finish its winter training cycle, when it will be at its highest state of readiness, Maxwell said in an interview.
“That’s important because this month and next month are the optimal times for the invasion of the South, where the ground is still hard and the rice paddies have not been flooded,” he said. “That makes the best time for maneuver on the peninsula.”
By bringing U.S. and South Korean forces to a high state of readiness, the alliance is letting North Korea know that it would be unwise to attack, Maxwell said.
“I believe the North Korean leadership, the military leaders in particular, are smart enough to know that you don’t attack into strength,” Maxwell said.
While Marines have conducted past amphibious exercises in South Korea, they need to keep those skills fresh in case the U.S. Forces Korea commander needs to call upon Marines to land on either of North Korea’s coasts, he said.
“It’s a critical capability that will give the commander many different options in actual war,” Maxwell said. “It is also important as well from a humanitarian assistance. If the regime collapses; if we have the mother of all humanitarian operations that needs to take place in the North … the ROK [South Korean] and the U.S. Marines will have a capability to get humanitarian assistance to either the east coast or west coast.”
While the U.S. believes these military exercises work to deter North Korean aggression, “we don’t know what goes on in the mind of Kim Jong Un,” Maxwell said.
His father Kim Jong Il had 21 years during which he was the designated successor in which to kill any possible rivals, Maxwell said. The younger Kim only had two years to prepare to take his father’s place. Since then, he has eliminated several senior North Korean leaders, and that could indicate that he is still consolidating his power.
“Given his leadership style and his inexperience and the fact that he has had so many violent purges of senior leaders, I do worry that military leadership may not be able to tell the emperor he wears no clothes,” Maxwell said. “They may only be telling him things they think he wants to hear.”
If North Korean military leaders are not giving Kim accurate information about U.S. and South Korean military strength, Kim may decide to invade, especially during times of instability or if Kim feels he is facing internal opposition, Maxwell said.
“His rational option may be to execute his campaign plan to try to unify the peninsula to try to ensure his survival,” Maxwell said. “To us, that seems irrational. But if he believes that this is his only option and he has a military that can defeat the South or defeat the alliance, then he of course might do that.”
By Jeff Schogol, Marine Corps Times