War Games: North Korea's Reaction to US and South Korean Military Exercises

Article excerpt

Since 1976, the militaries of the United States and South Korea have been holding routine joint military exercises (JMEs) for the purposes of military training and deterrence against North Korea. These exercises are frequently cited as a cause of tension on the peninsula, causing North Korea to escalate its conflictual rhetoric and behavior. I empirically assess this claim using new data on US-ROK JMEs and machine-coded event data collected by the Integrated Crisis Early Warning System. The findings show that North Korea does not systematically escalate its conflictual rhetoric or behavior during or near the occurrence of JMEs. The results hold for both low- and high-intensity exercises and for rhetoric that has the United States and South Korea as its target. KEYWORDS: joint military exercise, conflict, deterrence, escalation, event data, North Korea


SINCE THE END OF THE KOREAN WAR IN 1953, THE GOVERNMENTS OF the Republic of Korea (ROK, South Korea) and the United States have undertaken actions to deter another war on the Korean peninsula. (1) One such action is when their militaries execute joint military exercises (JMEs). In a classic security dilemma, many of the actions taken to promote long-term stability and security may actually cause short-term instability and risk conflict escalation (Jervis 1976). It is commonly argued that US-ROK JMEs incur such a trade-off (Chu 2006; Rabiroff 2010).

Ever since the inception of routine US-ROK JMEs in 1976, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) has loathed these exercises, often placing their military on alert and calling them a dress rehearsal for war when they occur (Chu 2006; Farrell 2009; Oberdorfer 2001). While high tensions and occasional low-level military conflict are characteristic of the relationship between North and South Korea and between North Korea and the United States, JMEs are often identified as a specific cause of such tensions. Implicit in this argument is that the DPRK escalates its conflictual rhetoric and behavior in response to the JMEs.

I argue this is not the case; US-ROK JMEs do not trigger a systematic escalation in conflictual rhetoric or behavior. The DPRK's rhetoric and behavior is routinely aggressive and militaristic, making any response to these exercises difficult to distinguish from normalcy. Furthermore, this is the case for all types of JMEs, whether they are of higher intensity and involve the physical movement of military assets or are of lower intensity where the training is carried out largely via computer simulations.

I conduct straightforward statistical tests to examine the relationship between US-ROK JMEs and North Korean activity more closely. To do so, I use new data on US and South Korean JMEs from 1998 through 2010 and high-frequency, machine-coded event data produced by the Integrated Crisis Early Warning System (ICEWS) project of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) (O'Brien 2010). To appropriately assess the hypotheses, the JMEs are coded based on their intensity, and the event data are aggregated into weekly counts of verbal conflict and material conflict from North Korea directed toward South Korea or the United States. The results from several negative binomial regressions generally support the hypothesis that these exercises are not sparking a systematic increase in conflictual rhetoric or behavior from the DPRK.

I begin with some background information on JMEs in general and US-ROK JMEs in particular. The hypotheses are then presented and assessed based on anecdotal evidence, descriptive evidence for a single year, and a systematic statistical evaluation. I conclude with policy implications for the future of JMEs held between the United States and South Korea.

Background on Joint Military Exercises

Joint military exercises, or joint war games, take place when the militaries from more than one state interact in such a way as to mutually enhance their ability to carry out military operations. …