26.09.2023 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Digest of Inter-Korean Tensions amid US-ROK Joint Exercises. Part 1. South Korean Actions

Digest of Inter-Korean Tensions amid US-ROK Joint Exercises

Ulchi Freedom Shield, a joint US-South Korean military exercise, was held on the Korean Peninsula from August 21 to 31, 2023.

A press release from the Republic of Korea (South Korea) Joint Chiefs of Staff noted that Ulchi Freedom Shield-2023 was created to be “a rigorous and realistic exercise to strengthen the alliance’s joint defense posture and response capabilities based on scenarios that reflect various security threats and lessons learned from recent wars and conflicts.” Among other things, the exercise was developed to strengthen the army’s military readiness and capabilities to counter terrorist and cyber threats.The stated main objective was that of strengthening the response capabilities of alliance forces and improving their ability to wage all-out warfare against the backdrop of factors such as the DPRK’s increased nuclear missile threat, changes in the security environment, and the experience gained from the current hostilities in Ukraine.

In this context, the exercises included not only military maneuvers proper, but also state structures’ responses in the event of an armed conflict, training on increasing the effectiveness of mobilizing the country’s resources.In particular, they practiced rapid transition to martial law in peacetime, responding to North Korea’s dissemination of various fake news and disinformation during an emergency, and countering cyberattacks.

It can therefore be seen that the 2023 exercise program was significantly expanded to include about 30 types of maneuvers, compared to 25 during the Freedom Shield 2023 spring exercise and 13 in the 2022 exercise.This represents a more than doubling of maneuver intensity compared with last year.

In addition, servicemen from United Nations Command member nations were involved in the exercises.These servicemen were from Australia, Canada, France, the United Kingdom, Greece, Italy, New Zealand, the Philippines, and Thailand.

The maneuvers were divided into two phases – Phase I from August 21 – 25, and Phase II from August 28 – 31. During Phase I, from August 21 to 25, the exercise tested the capabilities of the armed forces to conduct large-scale operations with the mobilization of resources from the entire country, including the civilian sector.In Phase II, only the military (land, sea, air force, marines, and space forces of the ROK and the US mainland) took part in the exercise, practicing satellite surveillance, missile threat warnings, and the operation of GPS and satellite communications systems.

Even before the maneuvers began, a series of events took place that indicated rising regional tensions.On August 1, Kim Seung-kyum, chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the South Korean Armed Forces, visited units in close proximity to the DMZ.After meeting with soldiers, he said they should be prepared to launch a “decisive strike” against North Korean troops if they make any “provocations” in connection with the planned maneuvers.

On August 17, according to the General Staff of the (North) Korean People’s Army (KPA), a US strategic reconnaissance aircraft again “violated the airspace over our side’s economic zone to a maximum depth of 14 kilometers and conducted aerial reconnaissance of the eastern region and the area deep inside the DPRK.”In response, DPRK fighter jets were launched and the US aircraft left the said area.In this regard, the KPA General Staff stated that “the airspace over the East Sea economic zone is consistently one part of the DPRK’s airspace under our sovereignty.Our army will not spare any physical response to protect the sovereignty of the Republic.”

On the eve of the exercise, South Korean (ROK) police said they had detected attempts by the North Korean Kimsuky hackers’ group to gain access to information infrastructure related to the organization and conduct of Ulchi Freedom Shield.Reportedly, no military information was “leaked,” and the author is not at all sure whether any hacking attack actually took place.

On August 21, at a cabinet meeting, ROK President Yoon Suk Yeol called for realistic drills that reflect the North’s military tactics and strategy, saying that he would use all means necessary to win if war does break out.

Yoon told his cabinet members to focus on preparing for three specific scenarios:“At the beginning of the war, North Korea spreads fake news, such as disguised peace propaganda, to cause confusion and division.Such efforts could disrupt the transition to military operations, which could lead to our rapid losses… Next, North Korea would attempt to paralyze society by attacking key national security targets.If North Korea’s missiles, drones, or cyberattacks destroy our nuclear power plants or communications systems, resulting casualties could be enormous… The North will use all possible means, including nuclear weapons, to achieve its war aims.”

In turn, China’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations Geng Shuang pointed out that the exercises by the United States and its allies near the Korean Peninsula “will not promote mutual trust and will not lead to the establishment of a peace mechanism on the peninsula,” that they “will further exacerbate tensions,” and increase the risk of confrontation and conflict, and “may even lead to war.”

Vasily Nebenzya, Russia’s Permanent Representative to the UN, also expressed this view.The actions of the United States and its allies in Northeast Asia pose a threat to international peace and security in the region, and Russia opposes any military activity that threatens the security of the Korean Peninsula and neighboring countries.

On August 21, the South Korean Air Force held air defense drills at 12 air force bases across the country.According to the Air Force Headquarters, about 20 aircraft, including F-35A, F-15K, KF-16 and FA-50 fighter jets, were involved in the exercise, practicing actions in case of enemy cruise missile launches and airspace violations by enemy aircraft.The exercise focused on training fighters to track and intercept aircraft, and air and missile defense personnel to track missiles and shoot down aircraft using surface-to-air missile systems.

On August 23, for the first time since 2017, nationwide Civil Defense drills were held throughout South Korea, with the exception of 13 regions that had received special Disaster Zone status as a result of recent heavy rains, as well as drills on comprehensive protection of important state facilities from drones.The actions of the population (evacuation to bomb shelters, etc.) and relevant services were practiced in the event of air strikes from a probable enemy.The exercise involved 140,000 employees of 170 government agencies, including the Capital Defense Command, the police and the Seoul Transportation Corporation.

At the signal of an air-raid siren, people were supposed to evacuate to bomb shelters or underground facilities, and vehicles were to pull over to the side of the road and stay there for 15 minutes.However, as the conservative Chosun Ilbo newspaper noted, although a North Korean ballistic missile can reach Seoul in 6 minutes, not all citizens were conscientious.Many people strolled leisurely through the streets even as sirens wailed and shopping centers were filled with visitors.In one apartment complex with 1,200 apartments, only one child went to an underground shelter, and most people did not know where the nearest shelter was.Traffic was stopped on only three major highways; cars traveled freely in most parts of the capital.

On the same day, August 23, President Yoon Suk Yeol visited the Tango Command Post, a US-controlled key wartime command bunker complex located in the mountains south of Seoul, which has served as a wartime command center for the armed forces of both countries since 1978.It is known to be robust enough to survive a tactical nuclear attack.This was the first visit by the South Korean president to the command post in a decade.

Speaking to the military, Yoon Suk Yeol urged them to “adopt a tough response posture combining the two nations’ nuclear and non-nuclear capabilities in case Pyongyang uses nuclear weapons.”Yoon said North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats are the most serious, and provocations through cyberattacks and psychological warfare are increasingly sophisticated and universal, saying it is necessary to be prepared for a strong response to possible nuclear and missile threats from North Korea by developing measures to effectively implement extended deterrence under the ROK-US Nuclear Advisory Group.

On August 24, the US Armed Forces conducted a key wartime “Ready to Deploy” exercise in South Korea.The US Army is known to have held the last such public training exercise in September 2017.As stated afterward, the exercise demonstrated the readiness of US troops to “fight tonight” immediately upon readiness.

On August 25, South Korean and US Navy Special Forces conducted a joint exercise for special reconnaissance operations, casualty care and responses to unexpected war situations.On the same day, the Sixth Rescue Operations Unit of the Navy’s First Fleet Command and the ROK Coast Guard’s Special Rescue Unit conducted a joint rescue operations exercise, where participants practiced a scenario of searching for missing persons in the coastal zone and tested new deep-sea diving equipment.

On August 29, the navies of the ROK, the United States, and Japan held a joint missile defense exercise on the high seas south of Jeju Island.The purpose of the exercise was to practice joint actions to counter a (simulated) nuclear missile threat posed by North Korea.The South Korean destroyer Yulgok Yi I, the US destroyer Benfold and the Japanese destroyer Haguro took part in the maneuvers.All of them are equipped with the Aegis air defense system.The exercise practiced joint actions to intercept incoming enemy missiles.In addition, the missile attack data exchange system was tested.

Also on August 29, the head of the US Strategic Command, Anthony J. Cotton, arrived in the ROK and met with South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-seop to discuss ways to strengthen the US commitment to extended deterrence and use the full range of its military capabilities to protect its ally.On the same day, Mr. Cotton met with US Ambassador to Seoul Philip Goldberg and discussed South Korea’s role in promoting peace and stability on the peninsula and in the Indo-Pacific region, and visited the Tango Command Post to meet with US Air Force Commander General Lacamera.

Finally, on the same day, B-1B strategic bombers flew over the Korean Peninsula and the Yellow Sea and participated in a joint training exercise with US and South Korean Air Force F-16 and FA-50 fighter jets.The B-1Bs are reportedly deployed to ROK territory for 300 days to demonstrate the implementation of the concept of “extended deterrence” and a “firm combined defense posture.”

On August 30, the ROK held an air passenger emergency response exercise.According to the Ministry of Land and Transportation, the Korea Airport Corporation, Incheon International Airport Corporation and other concerned agencies are participating.The exercise was aimed at practicing the actions of ground services in the event of an emergency landing of a passenger airplane.The effectiveness of the mobilization of resources from the fire department, police, local government and medical facilities was being tested.At the same time, the effectiveness of the response system at the administrative level was being tested.

On August 30, the KPA General Staff issued a report that “the US imperialists have deployed B-1B strategic bombers to the airspaces over the Korean East Sea and the Korean West Sea and, together with the Republic of Korea military gangster fighters, conducted a joint squadron offensive exercise against the DPRK” in the clear intention of launching a pre-emptive nuclear strike.According to Pyongyang, this is “nothing but announcing to the whole world that they consider a nuclear pre-emptive strike against our Republic as an already established fact and are putting it into practice.”In response, the KPA conducted its own exercises to attack command posts and operational airfields with tactical nuclear warheads. However, more importantly, the North’s response to the Ulchi Freedom Shield exercises was about the following text.

On August 31, officials reported a series of Army maneuvers.The ROK Army’s VII Maneuver Corps mobilized about 550 tracked vehicles, including tanks and self-propelled howitzers, and more than 3,000 troops for four days of marching exercises.

On the first day of the exercise, K2 tanks and K9 howitzers of the 11th Maneuver Division, based in Hongcheon County, 98 kilometers east of Seoul, covered a distance of about 100 kilometers and reached Gapyeong County, 50 kilometers northeast of Seoul, on Tuesday.

The Capital Motorized Infantry Division then mobilized its forces to cover about 110 kilometers between its headquarters in Gapyeong and the border county of Cheorwon, located 85 kilometers northeast of Seoul.

This unit conducted live-fire training with K1A2 tanks and K21 armored vehicles at the Cheorwon training field, while K9 self-propelled howitzers conducted live-fire exercises at another nearby training field.

The US Army’s 7th Engineer Brigade and the US 2nd Infantry Division also conducted a joint river crossing exercise in the border district.

On the same day, a joint US-Korean engineering unit exercise concluded with the 1115th Corps of Engineers, 37th Infantry Division, 91st Battalion, Republic of Korea Air Force and 11th Engineer Battalion, 2nd US-Korean Combined (infantry) Division.The training was designed to enhance operational capabilities and practice joint actions in rebuilding destroyed infrastructure.

In addition, on August 31, the South Korean and US air forces conducted a joint exercise in the skies over the Yellow Sea. About 30 military aircraft, including the notoriously stealthy South Korean F-35A, the F-15K, KF-16, RF-16, FA-50, F-4E fighters and A-10 attack aircraft of the 51st Squadron of the US Seventh Air Force, were involved in the exercise. According to the exercise scenario, the sides repelled an attack by enemy cruise missiles, and then, after penetrating the air defense system, entered its airspace and struck key targets. The F-35As, F-15Ks, and KF-16s hit air targets with AIM-9X and AIM-120B air-to-air missiles.The F-15Ks and KF-16s then destroyed cruise missile launch sites.GBU-31 and GBU-56 guided bombs were dropped on them.

The US Air Force A-10 attack aircraft and the South Korean Air Force FA-50 light attack aircraft also took part in the exercise, launching missile strikes and guided bomb strikes to neutralize other conditional enemy targets.

To summarize, it can be seen that the exercise was not just a conventional “repelling of a North Korean attack,” but a full-scale military conflict in which the DPRK is not just attacking, but using modern hybrid warfare strategies, including diplomatic activity, hacker attacks and spreading fake news.At the same time, the exercises themselves took place without any particular incidents directly threatening regional stability.Despite demonstrations of force and bellicose rhetoric (again, the author will write about what happened in the North during the days of the exercises later), there were no real provocations (like those that led to the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010).

On the other hand, seen against the background of the trilateral summit documents and other actions of the US and ROK, the exercises became another step, albeit small in size, toward a dangerous line, creating a situation in which such cycles of tension still increase the threat of emergency situations.


Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, Leading Researcher of the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, especially for the online magazine «New Eastern Outlook».

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