Like most military forces across the world, the Republic of Korea (ROK)/U.S. military forces based in the ROK are in a constant state of training which is required to maintain military effectiveness. North Korea seeks to stop this ROK/U.S. military training, but taking the North Korean complaints seriously could be a mistake.
Why ROK/U.S. Forces Need Military Training Exercises
The North Korean military threat to the ROK makes military training imperative. The North Korean Army has almost three times as many active duty personnel as the ROK Army and twice as many tanks, fields some 14,000 artillery pieces and rocket launchers, and threatens to use dozens of nuclear weapons and probably 2,500 to 5,000 tons of chemical weapons against the ROK. Sustained ROK/U.S. military qualitative superiority is required to offset North Korean quantitative advantages.
According to the U.S. Army manual on North Korean Tactics (PDF), North Korea “created a three-part strategy” for war against South Korea: “surprise attack; a quick, decisive war; and mixed tactics.” These strategies make constant and serious ROK/U.S. military training imperative: Any North Korean invasion of the ROK will be a “come as you are” conflict, without pauses for military training.
The North Korean Fear of ROK/U.S. Invasion Makes Little Sense
Many times each year, North Korea complains about the ROK/U.S. military training exercises. North Korea argues that these exercises are symbolic of the hostility that the United States poses toward North Korea and reflect the ROK/U.S. efforts to prepare for an invasion of North Korea, a clear sign of hostility. At his 2018 Singapore Summit with Kim Jong-un, then-President Trump yielded to these complaints by limiting ROK/U.S. military exercises. Now North Korea wants the exercises further limited or ended.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may well fear that the ROK/United States pose an invasion threat to North Korea, but there is little basis for such fear. ROK demographics and political decisions have caused the size of the ROK Army to plummet over the last 20 years from 560,000 active duty personnel to roughly 400,000 in 2021. That number is due to fall another 100,000 or so in the next seven years. Without substantial technological and Air Force support, an ROK Army of these sizes could have difficulty defeating a North Korean invasion and is unlikely to be in any position to carry out an invasion of North Korea. After all, most of the ROK Army combat divisions are infantry forces, forces that would suffer major damage from the North's 8,000 or so artillery pieces along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). And an ROK president contemplating invading the North would also have to worry that the North's artillery could cause severe damage to the ROK and to the ROK civilian population in and north of Seoul, as shown in some detail in a 2020 RAND study and a 2019 RAND study. ROK/U.S. air forces could reduce this artillery threat over time, but may have challenges in doing so if North Korea targets the small number of ROK combat airfields with special forces and nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons—a prime example of North Korean “mixed tactics.” If the ROK/U.S. forces tried to fight through the cream of the North Korean Army along the DMZ, Chinese forces could pour into North Korea and potentially seize Pyongyang before ROK/U.S. forces could reach it. In a 2018 RAND study, I found that the ROK/U.S. forces might have some success in an invasion in the aftermath of a North Korean government collapse. But even then they would have great difficulty stabilizing North Korean territory given the lack of preparation for such an imposed unification, as I described in a 2013 RAND study. The result could well be a Pyrrhic victory that no ROK or U.S. government would want.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may well fear that the ROK/United States pose an invasion threat to North Korea, but there is little basis for such fear.Share on Twitter
The major ROK/U.S. military exercises that North Korea complains about each year are the broad, theater-level exercises done in the spring and summer. Yet those exercises involve little or no field training: ROK/U.S. combat forces are not maneuvering in the forward area and are not firing rifles or tanks or artillery. These are “command post exercises” which are fought using software on a computer. The purpose of these exercises is to train headquarters military personnel in their responsibilities should war happen and to test the viability of existing war plans. These exercises are particularly critical for U.S. military personnel because many of them are assigned to Korea for only one year. Thus, a major effort is required to train newly arriving U.S. personnel every year. Is North Korea really terrified that ROK/U.S. computer simulations will somehow defeat the North's real military forces?
If the ROK/United States accept the North Korean demands to stop their defensive military training exercises, the ROK/U.S. military would become much less able to defend the ROK. By analogy, consider what would happen if the leaders of several other countries came to the ROK president and demanded that he stop the training of the ROK soccer team so that the other countries would have a better chance at a soccer medal in the 2024 Olympics. And what if the other leaders refused to stop the training of their own soccer teams? With no training for its team, the ROK would be guaranteeing failure in the 2024 Olympics. How would the ROK people feel about such a development? And yet the risks of stopping ROK/U.S. military training would be far greater, especially since North Korea has not offered to end its military training exercises.
North Korea: Seeking to Break the ROK-U.S. Alliance
So why does North Korea make such a big deal about stopping the ROK/U.S. military training exercises? Because the North Korean explanation lacks credibility, we must turn to North Korea's objectives to answer this question. In particular, North Korea continues to call for Korean unification, and in doing so the North clearly means unification under North Korean control. The best strategy I have seen for North Korea achieving this objective appears as part of final instructions that Kim Jong-il reportedly sent to his son Kim Jong-un just two months before the elder Kim's death. In this document, Kim Jong-il said:
- “We must unify Korea. The unification of the peninsula is the ultimate goal of our family.…
- “Unification through war has no meaning. If war were to occur, such event will set us back several hundred years.…
- “In order to do this, we must kick out the Americans from South Korea and we must overcome China's political and economic interjections in our domestic affairs.”
If the United States abandons the ROK and removes its forces from the ROK, North Korea appears to perceive that it will then be in a position to militarily dominate the ROK. This will be especially true if ROK forces have been weakened by a lack of military training exercises. While most U.S. experts dismiss the possibility of North Korean dominance, polls by the Korea Institute of National Unification show that already roughly a plurality of the ROK population perceive that North Korea has superior military capabilities to the those of the ROK. Such perceptions could give North Korea serious leverage in a confederation with the ROK.
Given the strong ROK public support for the ROK-U.S. alliance, North Korea appears to have adopted a multipart strategy for breaking the ROK-U.S. alliance and getting the United States to remove its forces from the peninsula. This strategy is described in a 2021 RAND study.
The ROK/United States may need to do a better job of responding to North Korean propaganda.Share on Twitter
One part of this strategy is to seek termination of ROK/U.S. military training, weakening the alliance and distancing the ROK and U.S. forces. A second North Korean initiative is to secure an ROK/U.S. peace declaration without any North Korean actions to secure peace. After all, North Korea fails to mention that it is far more hostile toward the United States then the United States is toward North Korea. Can there be true peace on the Korean Peninsula as long as North Korea continues to indoctrinate its people that the United States is their eternal enemy that they must fear and hate? A third North Korean initiative is to claim that the U.N. sanctions against North Korea for nuclear weapon and missile tests reflect a double standard because South Korea has also been testing new missiles similar to those of North Korea. But almost all of the U.N. sanctions against North Korea have been because of its nuclear weapon tests and its testing of missiles designed to deliver nuclear weapons. The ROK has not sought to develop nuclear weapons and has not been prohibited from missile testing like North Korea has been. And the North's nuclear program is going “full steam ahead”—so why would sanctions be eased? Thus, the North Korean complaint about a double standard is yet another example of North Korean deception. North Korea has been a master of deception since it claimed that the North did not start the Korean War of 1950–3; the North claims the ROK started the war.
The ROK/United States may need to do a better job of responding to North Korean propaganda. When examined in more detail, the North Korean complaints about ROK/U.S. military training failed to reflect that North Korea is the country which trains its military forces for invasion of the ROK, and not vice versa. ROK/U.S. military exercises are a critical component for strengthening the ROK/U.S. defensive alliance and for dealing with the North Korean invasion threat. In a theater where the North Korean strategy focuses on surprise, rapid conquest, and integration of weapons of mass destruction and massive special forces, the ROK/United States might be unwise to curtail their military training exercises any further.
Bruce W. Bennett is an adjunct international/defense researcher at the RAND Corporation.
This commentary originally appeared on Korea on Point on November 24, 2021. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.