Korean Joint Exercises: Saber Rattling or Just Diplomacy by Other Means?

In the half-century-old conflict on the Korean Peninsula, there have been countless ebbs and flows of tensions. Presently, it's flow time. South Korea and the United States are reportedly set to stage a large-scale naval exercise next week in the Yellow Sea, where North Korea allegedly sank a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, about two months ago. The U.S. aircraft carrier USS George Washington, which normally floats at a port in Japan, will join Seoul's Navy during a three-day show of force, as will nuclear submarines, Aegis warships, and amphibious assault landing ships. As one South Korean defense official put it, the display is intended to be "a strong signal to North Korea and also one that shows a firm combined defense posture," reports South Korea's Yonhap News Agency, which had the initial scoop. It was confirmed Wednesday night by unnamed U.S. officials, then disputed Thursday morning by Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who said he was unaware of any plan to add the nuclear carrier to the exercises.

But even if the ship is setting sail, does that constitute genuine saber rattling, or a carefully scripted imitation of brinksmanship? Just yesterday, the Korea Times was reporting that South Korean President Lee Myung-bak was already softening his rhetoric, spooked by the prospect of what a flare-up in tensions could do to his country's economy. Earlier this week, Seoul also delayed plans for a propaganda campaign that would have involved sending leaflets and radio broadcasts via loudspeakers into the North, ostensibly out of concern for the safety of the some 500 South Korean workers at the jointly operated Gaesong industrial plant, which is still open. The seeming dissipation of the crisis led Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy to conclude that "occasional blowups are just a part of the status quo on the peninsula—happening just frequently enough to keep a certain level of tension, but never getting serious enough to involve major violence. It might not be the healthiest arrangement, but it's one these two countries seem to have gotten used to." It's still unclear whether this development fits into the same pattern at this point, but there's good reason to take it with a grain of salt.

Off the peninsula, The New York Times explains China's role in the whole mess. Mark Leon Goldberg also has a good backgrounder here at NEWSWEEK on how the situation is playing out at the U.N., which is currently led by a native of South Korea.

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