Experts assess merit, risks of U.S.-South Korea exercise

By JON RABIROFF | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 23, 2010

SEOUL, South Korea — The Invincible Spirit air and naval exercise that begins Sunday off the east coast of the Korean Peninsula will be a clear show of U.S. and South Korean force. The USS George Washington, F-22 Raptor fighter jets, 20 ships and submarines, 200 aircraft and 8,000 servicemembers will take part in the exercise.

But when the smoke clears, will the four-day exercise meant for the rogue nation of North Korea have a long-lasting impact on relations in the Pacific region, or will it be quickly forgotten like a Fourth of July fireworks display?

That depends on whom you ask.

The U.S. and South Korea are about to engage in either a flexing of military muscle that can only further sour relations with North Korea and China or a demonstration of resolve that will send an important message to the two communist countries.

The exercise follows the March sinking of the South Korean patrol ship Cheonan, which an international team of investigators led by South Korea blamed on a North Korean submarine torpedo.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and South Korean Minister of National Defense Kim Tae-young issued a joint statement when the exercise was announced, saying, “These defensive, combined exercises are designed to send a clear message to North Korea that its aggressive behavior must stop, and that we are committed to together enhancing our combined defensive capabilities.”

Several experts agree.

Denny Roy, a specialist on Asia Pacific security issues at the East-West Center in Hawaii, said the exercise “is not lacking in lasting, practical implications,” not the least of which will be “important practice and training” for the U.S. and South Korea as allies.

“I don’t know if the exercise itself will be crucial to what North Korea does next,” he said. But, together with other economic and symbolic measures the U.S. and South Korea have taken, “it ought to make it clear [to North Korea that it] did not benefit from the sinking of the Cheonan,” he said.

Roy believes the exercise will serve an important role in showing that the U.S. will not take direction from China, especially given the perception — real or imagined — that the U.S. has gone too far in accommodating China by staging the upcoming exercise east of the peninsula.

China, North Korea’s most important ally, has been vocal in opposition to any U.S. and South Korean military exercises, particularly in the Yellow Sea on the west side of the Korean peninsula and near China’s eastern waters.

Others strongly disagree with the show of force.

“These exercises are exactly the wrong way to deal with North Korea” and another example of how “we continue to stick our finger in [China’s] eye,” said Selig Harrison, director of the Asia program at the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C. He is the author of five books on Asian affairs and U.S. relations, including “Korean Endgame: A Strategy for Reunification and U.S. Disengagement.”

The exercise is the latest in a string of measures the U.S. and South Korea have taken against North Korea for its alleged role in the March 26 sinking of the Cheonan, which left 46 South Korean crewmen dead.

While the South Korean-led team of investigators determined that a North Korean submarine sank the Cheonan in the Yellow Sea — near the disputed maritime border between the two Koreas — North Korea has denied any responsibility.

Invincible Spirit was put on hold for several weeks while the U.S. and South Korea waited for the United Nations Security Council to act on the Cheonan incident. The council issued a statement earlier this month expressing “deep concern” about the findings of the Cheonan investigation, but stopped short of directly blaming North Korea.

China reportedly was behind the watering down of that statement.

Harrison said the Invincible Spirit exercise will be “very provocative to China” and is a “major blunder,” because it will “strengthen China’s commitment to North Korea.”

Brendan Howe, a Seoul-based professor of international relations at Troy University, said the exercise will have the effect of “thrusting China back firmly into North Korea’s camp.”

Clark Sorensen, chair of the Center for Korea Studies at the University of Washington, suggested China is actually a “target” of the exercise, along with North Korea.

“The U.S. doesn’t want to a make an enemy of China,” he said, but it is not above using the exercise to send a subtle sign of its displeasure at how China continues to “sponsor” North Korea.

As for North Korea, Harrison said, this kind of “gunboat diplomacy” can work against a country that is easily intimidated, but the exercise will more than likely galvanize hardliners in North Korea.

“This is a bad way to deal with the bad guys,” Harrison said.

The exercise is not likely to prompt officials in the North to say they will stop their provocative acts, Roy said. But such an exercise is “especially upsetting to North Korea … because they are extremely worried about attack.”

No matter what the long-lasting effect of the exercise is, it gives South Korea a stage on which to show its solid partnership with its ally, the U.S. But that, too, could be perceived in a significantly negative way, Howe said.

“For the rest of the world, it shows a worrying lack of subtlety in dealing with the nuances of the North Korean situation.”