Joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea have begun, and all eyes are on the Korean peninsula. Although full details of the drills have not been made public, they will be largely computer-simulated and take place at facilities in South Korea, including a U.S. base in Yongsan district, Seoul. The military exercises, which formally started Aug. 21, are the first to occur since the successful North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests in July. In March, the two allies conducted two larger simultaneous drills — Foal Eagle and Key Resolve. The 2017 Ulchi Freedom Guardian drills will involve around 50,000 South Korean personnel and 17,500 U.S. personnel. 3,000 of the personnel are not ordinarily stationed on the Korean peninsula. A small number of British and Australian troops will also participate.
Around 25,000 U.S. personnel participated in the 2016 exercises, causing South Korean media to speculate that the 2017 numbers were lower because of increased tension with North Korea. However, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis responded Aug. 20 that 2017 personnel numbers were set months in advance and were lower because of an emphasis on command post operations and use of computer simulations. Unconfirmed reports in South Korean media also alleged that the United States had rolled back plans to deploy a nuclear-powered submarine, two aircraft carriers and B-1B bombers.
It will be important to monitor North Korea's reaction throughout the 10-day exercises. On Aug. 19, North Korea released a propaganda video showing a simulation of a missile strike on Guam, which concluded with a graphic of a calendar ticking down the days of the Aug. 21-31 Ulchi Freedom Guardian drills. It's a reminder that North Korea's "enveloping strike" threat against Guam is still in play.
In fact, there have already been threats of action from North Korea. On the first day of the exercises, North Korea carried out an unannounced release from the Hwanggang Dam on the Imjin River along its western border, causing water levels to rise on the South Korean side. The release of dam water was minor but is worth noting — unannounced releases of water have been occurring since 2013 and the rise in water fell short of a 7.5-meter crisis level.
In 2016, North Korea reacted to U.S.-South Korea exercises with the Aug. 23 test of a Pukkuksong-1 submarine-launched ballistic missile, followed by a Sept. 9 nuclear test. The world will remain on alert to see if North Korea will follow suit with similar actions this time around.