North Korean leader Kim Jong Un threatened to call off next month’s presidential summit in Singapore with President Trump over scheduled US-ROK military exercises which Kim had appeared earlier to say would not be an obstacle to the summit. Now the US seems to have given way and indeed scrapped the exercises.
The details are important and kind of complicated. There are at least two separate exercises which are either currently underway or were scheduled to be. The major one is Max Thunder, which is primarily focused on fighter jet training. Then there’s Blue Lightning which is focused on B-52s, strategic bombers. I had not realized these were seen as two separate exercises. It’s that latter exercise which appears to have been canceled. (The situation is further complicated by the fact that Blue Lightning was supposed to involve the US, South Korea and Japan. South Korea dropped out.)
B-52s are inherently more menacing to the North Koreans. They’re strategic bombers. They’re an obvious tool of attack the US would use against North Korea and the US has used them in the past to threaten the North Koreans.
The article and the US says that it was the South Koreans who wanted to pull back from this exercise, not the Americans. That’s not implausible. The current South Korean government is from the more left/dovish political party, historically more interested in a rapprochement with the North. The South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been proactive in trying not only to advance a general rapprochement including the US but particularly between the two Koreas. Having said this, I would not necessarily take at face value that this was driven by South Korea as opposed to the US.
More broadly, there is often a place for confidence building measures in the course of a general rapprochement. We shouldn’t see an adjustment like this as inherently a bad thing or a sign of weakness. Here though we need to see this in the general context that North Korea is not coming to discuss giving up their nuclear deterrent. They’ve made that pretty clear and I see no reason to think they’re bluffing. Why would they? At the same time, the US government has continued suggesting that the North Koreans are ready to do just that. That disconnect makes the build up to this summit, the preliminaries, very significant.