The Ulchi Freedom Guardian military drills conducted by the Republic of Korea and the United States every year always unfold like this: the ROK and the U.S. mobilize forces each summer to simulate "defending" against a "nuclear-capable" Democratic People's Republic of Korea, and the DPRK then makes a tit-for-tat response vowing to take resolute steps for a "preventive war".
But this year, the U.S.-ROK joint military exercise, which is being staged from Aug 21 to 31, is slightly different as the participation of local U.S. forces in the 11-day exercise has been scaled down from 25,000 last year to 17,500 this year. It's widely hoped, if only speculation, that the U.S. military will show restraint on the annual large-scale computer-simulated drill this year.
If so, the move will elicit sighs of relief from most people in the region, if it is intended to cool tensions, as this year there is a much greater chance than ever before of sparking the powder keg that the Korean Peninsula has become.
Unfortunately, the joint military exercises are being held at a particularly sensitive time and will likely only add further fuel to the fire, since the U.S. and the DPRK continue to escalate tensions by threatening each other.
Unhelpfully, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said on Sunday that the reduction simply reflects a need for fewer troops.
In July, the DPRK launched two intercontinental ballistic missiles which it claimed could reach the U.S. mainland. Responding to U.S. President Donald Trump's warning this month that the DPRK faced "fire and fury", the DPRK threatened to fire missiles toward the U.S. military bases on the island of Guam.
For a long time, the U.S. has blamed China for not leveraging greater influence to force the DPRK to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons, ignoring the fact that the DPRK is an independent country that has its own defense and diplomatic policies. However, it persists in turning a deaf ear to China's "dual halt" proposal that the U.S. and the ROK halt military drills while the DPRK drop its nuclear policy at the same time.
People in the ROK are reportedly worried that the U.S. may take unilateral action against the DPRK, which will also put the ROK, the U.S.' ally, in danger.
It will be extremely risky and dangerous if the U.S. believes taking tough actions, is the only way to denuclearize the DPRK. The U.S. should not forget that carrots played an important role in getting Iran to the negotiating table on its nuclear issue. And it was the sticks the U.S. used against Iraq and Libya that convinced the DPRK it needed nuclear weapons for its survival.
It's time for the U.S. to stop the blame game and truly shoulder its due responsibility by taking the right approach to restore peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.