South Korea Braces for Kim's Reply to Drills As He Grows China, Russia Ties

As South Korea and the United States conducted their largest joint military drill in years, officials in Seoul are preparing for a potential response by Pyongyang at a time when North Korea is further aligning itself with China and Russia.

The exercise, called Ulchi Freedom Shield, launched Monday and was set to include both simulated and live-fire scenarios involving thousands of troops, marking the biggest combined show of force yet for the two allies since 2017, just months before the resumption of a historic peace process that has unraveled over the years. Such maneuvers are traditionally seen as provocative by North Korea, which views them as a threat to its national security.

With North Korea already conducting semi-regular missile launches, and indications that Pyongyang may be gearing up for its first nuclear test in five years, a spokesperson for the South Korean Ministry of National Defense announced that the armed forces had been put on alert.

"In response to any North Korean provocation, the South Korean military will take full advantage of the ROK-U.S. alliance capabilities and S.K. military's own capabilities to respond resolutely," the spokesperson told Newsweek, using an acronym for South Korea's official name, the Republic of Korea (ROK).

"In addition," the spokesperson added, "our military is always closely monitoring the North Korean military situation."

A spokesperson for the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs also said Seoul was on the lookout in the coming days for possible action by North Korea, officially the Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK).

"The Korean government, in close coordination with the U.S, is watching for any further provocation by North Korea, including possible ballistic missile test launch," the spokesperson told Newsweek. "The Korean government will respond sternly to North Korea's provocations in cooperation with the international community, while maintaining an iron-clad ROK-U.S defense posture."

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South Korean soldiers participate in an anti-terror and anti-chemical terror exercise as part of the 2022 Ulchi Freedom Shield (UFS) at Lotte shopping mall on August 23 in Seoul. The 11-day exercise is a regular joint exercise between the U.S. and South Korean troops involving an array of contingency drills, including concurrent field maneuvers that were not held over the past years as former President Moon Jae-in administration pushed for peace with North Korea. Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

While the U.S. and South Korea have held joint summertime exercises on an annual basis, drills were scaled back under former South Korean President Moon Jae-in as he pressed for peace with North Korea. His successor, President Yoon Suk-yeol, who took office in May, has vowed to resume larger-scale training with the U.S. and enhance South Korea's capability to deter an attack from North Korea, while at the same time leaving the door open for diplomacy.

After Newsweek reported in June on an "audacious" plan by Yoon to offer North Korea economic incentives in exchange for peace and denuclearization, the South Korean leader delivered a speech last week outlining his approach to the rival country. The proposal was promptly shot down, however, by Kim Yo Jong, vice department director of the ruling Korean Workers' Party Central Committee and sister of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un.

In a lengthy, vicious statement that ridiculed the South Korean president, she told Yoon it would have been better had he "shut his mouth, rather than talking nonsense."

"Those villains seriously encroaching on our security circumstance by continuing to infiltrate dirty wastes into our territory talk about 'food supply' and 'medical assistance' to inhabitants in the north," Kim Yo Jong said at the time. "Such deeds will only incite our people's surging hatred and wrath."

"A knave who talks about 'bold plan' today and stages anti-north war exercises tomorrow is none other than 'mastermind' Yoon Suk Yeol," she added.

As Yoon sought to strengthen his country's alliance with Washington, Pyongyang appeared to be further aligning itself with its historic partners in Beijing and Moscow. In the 1950s war that rocked the peninsula, which remains formally unresolved to this day, China and the former Soviet Union backed North Korea, while a U.S.-led United Nations Command aided South Korea.

Three successive generations of the ruling Kim dynasty have fostered close relationships with China and Russia. These commitments were highlighted this month amid a flurry of statements declaring unwavering support for Beijing's claims to Taiwan, after a controversial visit to the disputed island by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and for Moscow's war effort in Ukraine, which has received extensive assistance from Washington and its NATO allies.

And as U.S. relations with both China and Russia plummeted, South Korean officials have expressed concerns to Newsweek that the Korean Peninsula would once again become a frontline for competition or even conflict among major powers. These fears are already playing out in China and Russia, which issued historic vetoes in May to new international sanctions against North Korea, an issue that was a rare yet longstanding consensus at the U.N. Security Council.

Artyom Lukin, the deputy director for research at the Far Eastern Federal University's School of Regional and International Studies in Vladivostok, explained how a geopolitical bloc appears to be forming in the region.

"North Korea has always been in a camp of its own," Lukin told Newsweek. "However, there are signs that North Korea may be getting less independent in its foreign policies while becoming more dependent on China. There is now a distinct possibility of the emergence of a geopolitical bloc consisting of China, Russia and North Korea, in which Beijing is the leader."

"Needless to say," he added, "the consequences will not be palatable for the U.S. and its Asia-Pacific allies."

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North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un delivers a speech before medics of the Korean People's Army on August 18. The North Korean ruler has declared victory over COVID-19, but after 10 years in power he remains mired in a struggle to revive his country's economy, even as he developed advanced and powerful new weapons. Korean Central News Agency

And while Pyongyang has always demonstrated a special relationship with Beijing, North Korea's growing political proximity to Russia could prove paradigm-shifting.

Lukin said that "the most important sign" that Pyongyang and Moscow were aligning was North Korea's decision to grant diplomatic recognition to two separatist republics in eastern Ukraine, becoming only the third country to do so after Russia and Syria.

"Regarding the possible extent and areas for Russia-DPRK enhanced collaboration, it may include almost anything — from importing North Korean labor into Russia to exporting Russian weapons to the North," Lukin said. "Sending North Korean troops to fight in Ukraine on behalf of Russia and/or the Donetsk and Lugansk republics is also within the realm of possibility, although it is not quite likely at the moment."

"That said, full-scale cooperation between Russia and North Korea can only start if and when the North lifts its COVID-related self-isolation," he added. "Currently, there are no transportation links functioning between Russia and North Korea, as there were completely suspended back in 2020."

This could change, however, as Kim declared victory earlier this month over his country's first acknowledged COVID-19 outbreak.

Given the sanctions imposed on Moscow by the West and its allies over the conflict in Ukraine, Russia could also "openly trade with North Korea, which China has so far not," according to Hosuk Lee-Makiyama, director of the European Center for International Political Economy.

Echoing Lukin, Lee-Makiyama told Newsweek that a particular area of interest was in weaponry, "where North Korea is keen to upgrade its fleet of 60-year-old Soviet-era fighter jets or to further advance its second-strike capability that will make an attack on North Korea impossible."

"As every U.S. administration since Clinton has kicked the North Korean can down the road," he said, "the Kims were given enough time to achieve immortality through its nuclear weapons."

"The DPRK has been given a seat at the high table on equal footing with the U.S. and China, with the license to behave badly," Lee-Makiyama said, "which Russia is happy to underwrite."