This morning between 6:31 a.m. to 6:41 a.m. (local time in South Korea) North Korea fired two missiles into the East Sea from the western port city of Nampo. According to the South Korean ministry of national defense, the missiles are presumed to be Scud-C because of their range, which was estimated to be 490 kilometers (304 miles). The missile tests came as the United States and South Korea began their annual Key Resolve (March 2 - 13) and Foal Eagle (March 2 - April 24) military exercises on the same day.

Earlier in the day, a spokesperson for General Staff of the Korean People's Army (North Korea) had issued a statement threatening "merciless strikes" against the United States and South Korea for conducting their military exercises, which they see as a rehearsal for an invasion of the North. Such provocative words were also voiced just a day ago by Kim Jong-un himself, where he instructed North Korean troops to be "fully prepared for war" and be ready to tear the "Stars and Stripes" to pieces during a visit to a Korean War museum.

Q1: What are these annual U.S.-ROK exercises?

A1: Key Resolve and Foal Eagle are annual joint military exercises conducted by the United States and South Korea on the Korean peninsula each spring. Key Resolve is a table-top exercise simulating communication, command, and control drills, and last little over one week.  Foal Eagle consists of field training that combine air, land, and sea exercises involving 12,500 U.S. troops and over 200,000 ROK troops.  These exercises are defensive in nature.

Q2: Is the North Korean missile test unusual in the face of recent diplomatic overtures to Russia and to South Korea?

A2: No. It is not unusual for North Korea to mix provocations and diplomacy in order to maximize its bargaining leverage. North Korea offered to implement a nuclear freeze in return for suspension of exercises last month, which the State Department rejected on the grounds that U.S.-ROK military exercises were lawful while the North’s nuclear program was not. 

Today's missile tests are the third this year by North Korea. Last month it had test fired a new "cutting-edge" anti-ship missile on February 7, and had also fired 5 short-range-missiles (which flew 200 km) a day later into the East Sea from the western port city of Wonsan.
Q3: Should we expect to see an escalation of tensions during the span of these exercises (concluding at the end of April)?

A4: It is hard to say. CSIS Korea Chair research finds a correlation between the state of U.S.-DPRK diplomatic relations prior to the exercises and the degree to which there is escalation tension prompted by the exercises. The correlation goes back to 2006 (with a couple of exceptions). There are two problems under Kim Jong-un’s rule. First, we have a sample size of only two years (2013 and 2014). Second, the data for 2015 does not offer a clear projection. In 2013, generally poor U.S.-DPRK relations in January-March presaged heightened tensions as a result of the exercises (e.g., Kim’s threatening nuclear strikes against U.S. cities). In 2014, a neutral U.S.-DPRK relationship in January-March meant less tension during the exercises. 2015 has seen President Obama’s imposition of sanctions after the Sony hack, but also the upping of inter-Korean humanitarian assistance and efforts at U.S.-DPRK diplomacy, so the impact on exercises is unclear.  

Victor Cha is a senior adviser and holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C. Katrin Katz is an adjunct fellow with the CSIS Korea Chair.

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Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair