This week, in a move that came as a surprise to many within the East Asia policy community, North Korea (DPRK) tested a new multiple rocket launch system off of the Hodo peninsula. This is the second time this month that North Korea has demonstrated a new weapons platform, as Pyongyang also tested short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM) which may be able to evade U.S. missile defenses. These tests follow statements from the DPRK foreign ministry that the United States committed a “breach of the main spirit of June 12 DPRK-U.S. Joint Statement” by continuing plans to conduct the 19:2 Dong Maeng (Alliance 19:2) joint military exercises (JMEs) with South Korea in August. Stating that U.S. President Donald Trump assured North Korean leader Kim Jong-un such exercises would be “suspended” during their recent meeting along the Demilitarized Zone in late June, Pyongyang has signaled that working-level talks could be impacted.
This latest string of statements isn’t the first time that North Korea has expressed its disdain for JMEs on the Korean Peninsula. In fact, Pyongyang has renounced such drills since their inception in the mid-1950s, labeling them a dry-run for invasion or attack. The United States and South Korea repeatedly affirmed that such exercises are needed to maintain military readiness and are not offensive in nature—while also pointing out Pyongyang conducts its own large-scale exercises quite regularly. But, JMEs have time and again elicited aggressive rhetoric and responses from the north. Further still, Pyongyang’s latest tests and provocative statements come after a period of rekindled negotiations, with Trump making history crossing into North Korea and later holding talks with Kim at Panmunjom.
All of this raises a natural question: is it fair to say that JMEs elicit a fundamentally different form of hostility from North Korea than its usual brand of fiery rhetoric and behavior? Research suggests that there’s little empirical evidence to support this claim. Instead, a mixture of insecurity, economic constraints and external circumstances are key influencers in Pyongyang’s often negative reactions to JMEs.