Exactly How Provocative are U.S.-ROK Military Exercises?

Korea Chair Platform

Between 6:31AM to 6:41 AM on Sunday, March 2, North Korea fired off two short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) from the western port city of Nampo into the East Sea. A few hours after the Scud-Cs landed into the sea, the U.S. and the ROK began their annual joint military exercises Key Resolve (March 2 – 13) and Foal Eagle (March 2 – April 24). It is hardly coincidence that a North Korean provocation took place on the same day the exercises began.

History shows that North Korea tends to respond to these exercises – which they denounce yearly as a rehearsal for an invasion of the North – not only with rhetoric, but also with kinetic provocations. It is almost axiomatic that North Korea will conduct some form of provocation in response to U.S.-ROK military exercises but the nature of the causal relationship between exercises and provocations is unclear.

From a cursory look, it seems that the U.S.-ROK military exercises always lead to negative North Korean responses, worsening relationships, and increased tension in the peninsula. Typical DPRK propaganda charges that "the U.S. is to blame for increasing tension in the region by staging provocative exercises every year." Is this really the case? Do exercises ‘cause’ North Korean provocations? Or are North Korean provocations driven by internal factors? Are there periods of exercises in which the North has not provoked?

Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair

Na Young Lee, and Andy Lim