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Unprecedented US War Drills and Naval Deployments Raise Fear of War in Korea

The current US military buildup in the Korean Peninsula has surpassed Cold War levels.

South Korean and U.S. soldiers conduct a joint river-crossing exercise in Yeoncheon, Gyeonggi province, on March 20, 2024.

South Korea’s general election will be held on April 10, as candidates compete for the 300 seats in the country’s unicameral National Assembly. The latest polls show a neck-and-neck race between President Yoon Suk-yeol’s right-wing ruling People Power Party (PPP) and the main opposition “liberal” Democratic Party which currently holds a majority. This election will serve as a referendum on Yoon’s repressive “republic of prosecutors” and his administration’s dismal neoliberal economic policies. One critical issue that has been absent in the media coverage of these critical elections is Yoon’s decision to entirely subsume South Korea’s national interests to Washington’s regional objectives, particularly with respect to the Biden administration’s new Cold War with China and the massive expansion of the provocative U.S.-led military exercises in the Korean Peninsula.

Yoon’s complete acquiescence to the demands of Biden’s aggressive new Cold War has earned steady criticism from opposition liberal and progressive parties. Lee Jae-myung, chair of South Korea’s Democratic Party, has criticized Yoon for “Cold War posturing … [that] stokes fear and division,” calling for South Korea to pursue its own national interests rather than allowing itself to be reduced to a “pawn in the plans of others.” Similarly, Cho Kuk, chair of the progressive Rebuilding Korea Party, opposes South Korea’s regression toward Cold War-era diplomatic relations with China and Russia, which he argues are straining relations to the breaking point.

Nevertheless, in spite of the considerable opposition to Washington’s imposition of its new Cold War on South Korea, Yoon has obediently rubber-stamped two years of virtually unabated U.S.-led military exercises at North Korea’s doorstep, putting the South Korean military entirely at Washington’s disposal and thrusting it firmly in the front lines of the new U.S. Cold War. In the continued absence of any meaningful Korea policy, President Biden has failed to mention North Korea in his State of the Union address for the third year running. Despite being the world’s largest military exercises in peacetime, these war games have hardly received any attention in the United States.

The latest U.S.-led military exercise, “Freedom Shield 2024,” mobilized more than 300,000 South Korean troops alongside 10,000 American troops in a staggering series of 48 field maneuvers — double those of last year’s “Freedom Shield.” These combined battle-ready attack and invasion forces carried out airstrikes, tactical live fire drills, and air combat and bombing runs at the North-South Korean border. Per Operations Plan (OPLAN) 5015 between the U.S. and South Korean Army, which envisages a preemptive strike against North Korea, these forces are armed, deployed and poised to cross the border literally at a moment’s notice.

That the United States and South Korea are ramping up provocations against North Korea is nothing new: Every U.S. president since 1945 has been antagonistic toward the North. Donald Trump threatened North Korea “with fire and fury like the world has never seen” while Biden vowed the “end of North Korean regime if it attacks.” But the scope, intensity and frequency of the war drills have been steadily intensifying and now far surpass those held during the Cold War. The past year alone included:

  • 250+ days of U.S. and South Korean joint military maneuvers, including almost every day between February and April 2023, compared with 30 days of North Korean military exercises over the entire year;
  • 21 instances in which U.S. strategic assets, including nuclear-capable weapon platforms, were deployed to South Korea;
  • 10+ UN Command member nations participating in U.S. and South Korean joint military maneuvers, and pledging to provide firepower in the event of hostilities;
  • Attainment of a new record as the world’s largest military exercises to date in scale and scope.

South Korea’s defense chief has pledged to “swiftly eliminate North Korean leadership” as a pillar of the military’s three-axis deterrence system against the North, which includes a “Kill Chainpreemptive strike platform designed to destroy North Korea’s ballistic missiles prior to launch as well as selectively “remove” North Korean leadership. To further drive the point home, South Korea’s far right President Yoon Suk-yeol has encouraged frontline troops to “shoot first and ask questions later” in the event of any exchange with the North. For its part, while continuing the customary line that the U.S. harbors no hostile intent toward North Korea, Washington justifies the rapidly expanding U.S. military posture on the Korean Peninsula as purely a “defensive response to North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs” and its “resistance to negotiations.”

Even conservative security analysts dispute Washington’s claim, while experts stress that “neither North Korean conventional forces nor its nuclear weapons pose a significant threat of war on the peninsula.” The combined United States Forces Korea (USFK) and South Korean forces far overshadow those of North Korea, whose entire military budget is $1.47 billion compared to that of South Korea at $43.1 billion, not to mention that of the U.S. at $816.7 billion.

Others draw attention to the fact that, despite Pyongyang’s rhetoric, North Korea’s nuclear platforms are a defensive tool. In his speech to the North Korean legislature this past January, Kim Jong Un reaffirmed the self-defensive posture and stressed, “We will never unilaterally unleash a war if the enemies do not provoke us … there is no reason to opt for war, and therefore, there is no intention of unilaterally going to war.” Even USFK Commander General Paul LaCamera has admitted that the North Korean leader’s priorities are in fact “regime survivability” and “preparing to defend his nation.”

Three important points merit particular attention with respect to the ongoing U.S.-led joint military exercises within the context of U.S. foreign policy in the Korean Peninsula.

First, the driving force of the increasingly offensive U.S.-led joint military exercises is Washington’s “hyper-militarized Indo-Pacific Strategy” in support of its new Cold War against China. While the USFK notes that the military exercises “aim to bolster security and stability not only on the Korean peninsula but also across Northeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific,” Washington’s actions are in fact increasingly destabilizing. In addition to ramping up the scope and frequency of regional military exercises, the U.S. is deploying more than half of its aircraft carriers to the Pacific in the coming weeks — an unprecedented regional concentration of naval power that is being branded as a “show of force” against China and North Korea.

Second, the U.S. quest to leverage an ever-increasing network of global assets in its conflict with China directly drives U.S. military exercises in South Korea. Case in point is the increasing involvement of the United Nations Command (UNC) in the U.S.-led joint military exercises. Despite its name, the UNC is not an organization under the control of the United Nations; it is in fact a U.S.-controlled military alliance organized under the nominal auspices of the “international community.” According to Tim Beal, a preeminent researcher on U.S. imperialism in Asia and the author of Crisis in Korea: America, China and the Risk of War, the U.S. has initiated a rapid “modernization program” for the UNC in order to upgrade it to a key component of the U.S. military architecture in the Indo-Pacific. This effort entails:

  • A multi-year push to revitalize the UNC into a “formidable military asset” and induct its member states to take part in military exercises in the Korean Peninsula. Some states such as the U.K. have already been sending combat troops to participate in joint landing exercises.
  • Expansion of UNC as part of a U.S. push to frame the UNC as the core of an “expanded and repurposed global alliance structure” that “stretches far beyond the Korean peninsula” to serve Washington’s geopolitical aims.

Third, U.S. military cooption of countries along China’s perimeter requires the seamless management of a network of multinational military assets via the U.S.-controlled UNC, the recent emergence of the U.S.-led Japan-South Korea-U.S. (JAKUS) military alliance, and carving out a greater role for NATO in East Asia that has, in Tim Beal’s words, uncomfortable “echoes of the European imperialisms of the past” along with Washington’s parallel efforts to create a NATO-like bloc in Asia. South Korea, the U.S. military outpost closest to China, is a critical linchpin in the network of U.S. “force-multipliers,” serving as a frontline launch pad for any U.S.-led war in East Asia. The U.S. has retained continuous wartime operational control of the South Korean military since the Korean War in 1950, and ensures that South Korea’s 600,000 troops and 3.1 million reservists — Washington’s principal regional instrument against China — are constantly combat-ready as the first wave in any such conflict. In his hearing at the U.S. House Armed Services Committee on March 20, USFK Commander General LaCamera bluntly admitted that the strategic value of the USFK in fact lies in the fact that it serves as a “counterweight to China and Russia.” As a result, South Korea is being swept up in Washington’s intensifying hegemonic war, even though there is, in author Kim Sung-hae’s words, “no inherent reason why Korea should be an enemy of China or Russia.”

The U.S. is using North Korea as a pretext for its new Cold War against China, and, with its control of 40 percent of the world’s nuclear stockpile, is even willing to risk nuclear war to further its geopolitical aims. As Noam Chomsky puts it, “U.S. policy is very provocative. Nuclear war ends everything, but the United States always plays with fire.” It is in fact the U.S., not North Korea, that not only fans the flames of confrontation between North and South Korea, but appears to be actively planning for the possibility of a new war in the Korean Peninsula — an inconvenient truth that is absent from Western media amid fearmongering about Pyongyang.