The Significance of Small Gestures: The Decision on Military Exercises

January 5, 2018 1:45 PM

The PyeongChan Winter Olympics open on February 9 and close February 25. Last year, the Foal Eagle military training exercise began on March 1 and ran for about two months. The year before that, the largest and most visible of the joint Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises in years also kicked off in March—as they did the year before that. Moreover, it did not take more than 24 hours for the secretary of defense to underline that the exercises would in fact take place following the conclusion of the Winter Paralympics, something that Kim Jong-un must have certainly foreseen. The chance that the Trump administration would unilaterally cancel exercises altogether remains close to zero, and certainly in the absence of some sign of willingness on the part of North Korea to discuss the nuclear issue.

Sometimes the smallest—indeed virtually insignificant—gestures can carry significant diplomatic weight.

But therein lies an important conclusion: that sometimes the smallest—indeed virtually insignificant—gestures can carry significant diplomatic weight. It is not clear that the exercises were actually even "delayed" let alone canceled; the important point is that Presidents Donald Trump and Moon Jae-in reached an agreement that they would be "delayed." Within two hours, the North had responded, showing that the offer made in the New Year's address was not altogether empty and setting the stage for talks early next week.

It has been an open secret since mid-December that the Moon administration was seeking an agreement on the exercises and that he had discussed the issue during his summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping after the initial proposal had been made to the United States. That fact is also highly significant, since the guts of the joint Chinese-Russian proposal—analyzed in detail here—centers on suspending exercises in return for a suspension of missile and nuclear tests (a deal that the administration has been rightly skeptical of in the absence of a swift transition to meaningful negotiations). These complicated quid-pro-quos came up during this most recent drama, as the United States initially went silent on the issue and then floated the idea that the delay would take place only if the North Koreans also agreed to a short-term moratorium on testing. US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley was the most public source of US intelligence that the North Koreans might be preparing another missile test, and she was quick to call for still more sanctions if they tested. And satellite analysts Bermudez and Co. at 38North have detected the perfect just-below-the-radar spoiler: the possibility of another engine test at Sohae.

Yet the Moon administration insisted—rightly—that the agreement on exercises was designed with only limited objectives in the short run: to assure that North Korea did not, in a fit of pique, try to steal the limelight by testing during the games or even disrupting them altogether through some other asymmetric means. Whatever his larger agenda, he also confirmed quite clearly that a resolution of North-South issues ultimately turned on the nuclear question as well, fending off charges that the North Koreans were effectively undermining the alliance (as we all know they will try to do).

President Moon's concerns were hardly irrational, but you could see his delight in scoring a small win in the photo posted in the Yonhap lede on the story. Even if a stock picture, it captures the Korean president's mood well. In my analysis of the New Year's speech, I argued that Kim Jong-un showed signs of weakness as well as strength: a nuclear program that is nearing completion but an economy likely to face serious headwinds from steadily tightening sanctions. If the initiative shows that Pyongyang is reconsidering its wider posture towards negotiations, then the news is good; in an excellent example of granular text analysis, Carlin and Wit show at 38North that these initiatives are not only coming from the very top, but are intended to be interpreted as coming from the very top. And if the North Koreans come to the table empty-handed and asking to be paid, are we really worse off? Whether this goes anywhere remains to be seen, but we should listen to Deng Xiaoping: You cross the water by feeling for the stones. The decision on exercises is a stone.

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