The U.S. and South Korean militaries are forging ahead with annual summer war games next week, potentially dialing up tensions with North Korea after a week of relative calm.

Pyongyang considers the exercises a rehearsal for invasion and typically lashes out with fiery rhetoric and occasionally provocative acts such as missile launches.

In a month in which President Trump and North Korea have already traded nuclear threats, analysts predict the routine war games could be tenser than ever. 

“The next couple weeks are going to be interesting,” said Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest.

{mosads}Tensions between the United States and North Korea reached a fever pitch last week after it was reported North Korea has successfully miniaturized a nuclear warhead to mount on a missile.

Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un subsequently engaged in a volley of threats. Trump promised “fire and fury” if North Korea continues threatening the United States and said U.S. military options were already “locked and loaded.”

Kim, meanwhile, threatened to a launch a salvo of missiles into waters just off the U.S. territory of Guam.

The temperature cooled somewhat this week after Kim didn’t follow through on his Guam threat. Kim, though, said he could still order the missile launch and that he was waiting to see how the Americans behave before doing so. 

Trump praised Kim for making the “wise” decision to table the Guam plans.

On the heels of that war of words, the United States and South Korea will begin their annual 10-day Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise on Monday. The games are staged to train the South for dealing with an attack by the North. 

This year’s Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise will include about 17,500 U.S. troops, about 3,000 of them from off the peninsula. Troops from Australia, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, New Zealand, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom will join in as well.

Ulchi Freedom Guardian “is a computer-simulated defensive exercise designed to enhance readiness, protect the region and maintain stability on the Korean Peninsula,” the Pentagon said in a statement Friday. “These exercises also highlight the longstanding military partnership, commitment and enduring friendship between the two nations, help to ensure peace and security on the peninsula, and reaffirm U.S. commitment to the alliance.” 

The exercise is smaller than spring exercises Foal Eagle and Key Resolve, which usually involve live-fire training, tank movements and sea and air drills. 

Last month, China and Russia floated a proposal for the United States and South Korea to halt their drills in exchange for North Korea freezing its missile program. It’s a demand Pyongyang itself has put forward in the past.

In the face of rising tensions, U.S. officials have vowed to press on with the drills.

“My advice to our leadership is that we not dial back our exercises,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford told reporters in Beijing on Thursday. “As long as the threat in North Korea exists, we need to maintain a high state of readiness to respond to that threat.” 

Military exercises are often a fraught time on the peninsula. In 2015, North and South Korea exchanged artillery fire at the same time as the Ulchi Freedom Guardian drills after the South began blasting propaganda on loudspeakers across the border. Seoul used the loudspeakers as a response to two South Korean troops being seriously wounded by North Korean mines placed in the demilitarized zone between the two countries. 

Last year, days after the conclusion of the war games, North Korea carried out its fifth nuclear test. 

In March, at the beginning of the Foal Eagle exercises, North Korea test fired four ballistic missiles. 

Carl Baker, director of programs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Pacific Forum, cautioned against linking the tests and the drills, saying correlation does not equal causation. 

While North Korea may test a sea-launched ballistic missile in the coming weeks, Barker said, it wouldn’t be as a direct response to the exercise.

He predicted more of Kim’s heated rhetoric during the Ulchi Freedom Guardian drill, but not much else.

“I don’t think North Korea is going do more than just complain about it,” said Baker, a retired Air Force officer who served as an international political-military affairs officer for the U.N. Military Armistice Commission and as a political and economic intelligence analyst for U.S. Forces Korea.

But Kazianis said he would not be surprised to see North Korea carry out its sixth nuclear test or another intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test during this year’s exercise. He put the chances of an ICBM test in the next two weeks at “very, very likely.”

Still, he said, doing so could prove risky, as a test that goes wrong and endangers the United States and its allies would likely elicit a U.S. response.

“Kim Jong Un might make the logical decision that it’s probably bad to test during a military exercise,” Kazianis said. “The danger of accidental war is if an ICBM test goes bad and crash landed in South Korea or Japan, we’d be very hard pressed to respond in some way, and then it becomes an escalatory spiral.” 

Robert Gallucci, the chief U.S. negotiator during the 1994 North Korean nuclear crisis, said the exercises are important for the U.S. and South Korean alliance and that no change should be made to them unless South Korea wants to. 

In 1994, the United States agreed to cancel an exercise known as Team Spirit, but in the context of an agreement that had other elements, Gallucci said. 

Still, he said, this year’s drills can avoid “unusual or unusually provocative” moves. For example, past exercises have included so-called decapitation drills, practice strikes of how to kill Kim and his top generals. 

Gallucci added that he’s hopeful Kim has gotten the message that now is not the right time for a new nuclear or ICBM test.

“I don’t know what he’s going to do,” he said. “I’m hoping he’s deterred from this and that his reaction would be limited to the bombastic rhetoric for which he is expected.” 


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