Some news broke about North Korea on Thursday morning — and, for once, it’s actually kind of reassuring.
The US and South Korea just announced that they would delay annual military exercises that were scheduled to take place during the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongcheong. These exercises, which involve simulating operations that would likely be used in the event of war with North Korea, generally anger the North and could have provoked it to do something dangerous in response.
The decision, which was apparently during a call between Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-In, is surprising given Trump’s belligerent approach to North Korea. Analysts had predicted that the Olympic games in Pyeongchang, coupled with the exercises, might be an opportunity for North Korea to launch a high-profile missile test or do something else provocative. The postponing of exercises makes such a provocation — which could potentially have escalated into something even scarier — less likely.
In short? This move decreases the risk of war with North Korea — at least by a little bit and for now.
“Delaying military exercises will certainly delay a source of tension,” Jeffrey Lewis, an expert on North Korea at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies, says. “It will also provide some space to discuss reducing tension.”
But a lot depends on the follow-up. The exercises are delayed, not canceled, and North Korea could very well do something else that reignites tensions during the Olympic games. This is a temporary reprieve, but whether it’s anything more depends a lot on what American and Korean leaders do next.
Why the delay matters
The annual spring US-South Korean exercises, called Foal Eagle, are typically held in February or March. They’re huge — 290,000 South Korean troops participated in 2016 — and involve air, sea, and land troops rehearsing activities that might be necessary in the event of an actual war with North Korea.
North Korea usually responds to Foal Eagle with strongly worded statements rather than serious military action. But this year, things are different. The operations were scheduled to take place during the tail end of the Pyeongchang Games — technically, during the Paralympics — which means there would be greater international attention on the Korean Peninsula.
Perhaps more significantly, the heightened tensions between the US and the North, stemming from North Korea’s recent weapons tests and Trump’s aggressive responses, makes the North far more worried about a preemptive US strike than in the past.
Under these circumstances, North Korea is more likely to respond aggressively to military exercises. And experts warn that a Northern provocation, like a new missile test or shelling South Korean military assets, could spiral out of control and provoke a broader conflict.
President Moon is acutely aware of these risks. During his call with Trump, he asked the US president to delay the exercises specifically to avoid giving the North Koreans a reason to escalate.
“If you could express an intention to delay joint South Korea-US military exercises during the Olympics,” Moon asked Trump per Yonhap News, it would help ensure that “the North does not make any more provocations.”
The decision to delay the exercises also comes at time of thawing relations between the North and the South. In a Tuesday speech, Kim Jong Un expressed his willingness to negotiate directly with South Korea over its nuclear program, and offered to send official representatives to the Pyeongchang games. On Wednesday, North Korea reopened a diplomatic hotline to the South that it had closed nearly two years ago.
Moon’s hope, it seems, is that delaying military exercises will foster direct talks between the North and South before and during the Olympics — eventually creating an entryway to broader nuclear talks involving the US.
“We will closely cooperate with the US in any talks with the North, and strongly believe inter-Korean talks will help create a mood desirable for US-North Korea talks aimed at resolving the North Korean nuclear weapons issue,” Moon told Trump during their call about the exercises, according to the Wall Street Journal.
So that’s the good news. The more troubling part is that this is all very fragile, and could fall apart at any moment.
The Foal Eagle exercises will still happen at some future date, and any provocation by the North could lead to another angry response from the US or tweet from the president, which could derail any effort by the South to broker negotiations between the US and the North. One potential flashpoint is April 15, the birthday of Kim Il Sung — Kim Jong Un’s grandfather and North Korea’s founder. It’s an occasion the North typically uses to demonstrate its military prowess.
Hence why experts are worried that this is just a temporary reprieve rather than a full-on fix. “Unless something changes, once the Olympics are over, we’ll be back in the same cycle as before,” Lewis says.
But given how quickly tensions with North Korea have escalated, any temporary win is worth celebrating. The risk that the 2018 Olympics will end not with a closing ceremony but with a mushroom cloud just got a bit lower.