U.S. Marines and their South Korean counterparts are conducting a military exercise that includes a bilateral division-sized amphibious landing for the first time since 2018, said Wesley Hayes, a spokesman for U.S. Forces Korea.
This month marks the resumption of the Ssang Yong exercise, which lasts until April 3, Hayes told Task & Purpose. The exercise involves Marines and sailors with the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit and Amphibious Squadron 7, along with the 1st Republic of Korea Marine Division and South Korean navy.
The Ssang Yong exercise is defensive in nature and comes after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and South Korean Minister of National Defense Lee Jong-sup agreed at their most recent Security Consultative Meeting in November to enhance combined military exercises and training, Hayes said.
“Both leaders pledged to closely cooperate to return to large-scale field exercises in line with combined exercises in 2023, noting training for defensive and deterrent purposes is a critical component of maintaining alliance readiness,” Hayes said. “The two sides assessed the ROK [Republic of Korea]-U.S. Alliance must continue to focus on combat readiness and on combined defense posture to address dynamic changes on the Korean Peninsula.”
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Large-scale joint military exercises between U.S. and South Korean forces ended in 2018 as then President Donald Trump offered an olive branch to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in return for agreement on the country’s nuclear and ballistic missiles program.
It didn’t work. A 2019 summit between the two leaders in Hanoi ended without any agreements and North Korean cruise and ballistic missile tests increased from four in 2020 to more than 90 in 2022. North Korea’s military has also claimed that it successfully tested a 600mm multiple-launch rocket system capable of striking any target in South Korea with tactical nuclear weapons.
The resumption of joint amphibious exercises between U.S. and South Korean troops sends a message to North Korea that the United States and South Korea are taking a unified approach to North Korea’s provocations, said Soo Kim, a former CIA Korea analyst who is currently with the LMI, a consulting firm.
“The Trump administration’s policy toward North Korea was in many ways an anomaly,” Kim told Task & Purpose. “Bypassing the policy and engagement process for dealing with tough regimes like North Korea was clearly not the route typically taken by US administrations in the past. The steps that the Biden administration has been taking have been, essentially, a course-correction to reset the baseline for dealing with the Kim regime. This won’t make Kim Jong Un happy, of course.”
Another reason the Ssang Yong exercise is so significant is that U.S. and South Korean forces have not held combined amphibious exercises for so long that they are out of practice, said retired Army Gen. Robert Abrams, who led U.S. Forces Korea from November 2018 to July 2021.
Amphibious operations are inherently hard to pull off, and they are even more complex and difficult to conduct with a partner nation, Abrams told Task & Purpose.
“This is long overdue to knock the rust off and rebuild a real combined capability,” Abrams said. “Sends a clear message to ROK about our real commitment to combined readiness in all domains and no longer accept all the risk we did assume when we stopped amphibious training. Sends an equally strong message to North Korea that we have a credible conventional deterrent.”
For U.S. and South Korean troops to be able to fight together, they need to train together, said Bruce Bennett, a North Korea expert with the RAND Corporation.
“Marines landing somewhere is a very sophisticated operation,” Bennett told Task & Purpose. “It is something that you’ve really got to put a whole lot of pieces together to make it work; and if you don’t, a whole lot of people are going to die.”
Although U.S. and South Korean troops hold amphibious training by themselves, they may use different terminologies for how to conduct such operations, Bennett said.
Only a handful of officers get training in both countries, so the vast majority of U.S. and South Korean troops learn from experience by working together in combined exercises such as Ssang Yong, he said.
“There’s a lot of slang we use that our counterparts aren’t necessarily going to know,” Bennett said. “So, trying to work through how you describe what’s happening and making sure that you’ve got good communications is pretty critical too.”
Ironically, North Korea’s leader has been a driving force that has pushed the United States and South Korea to work closer together. Kim’s call to dramatically increase the size of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, his threats to launch nuclear missiles against the United States, and North Korea’s constant missile tests have made the U.S.-South Korea alliance closer than it ever has been.
“He’s probably the best proponent of the alliance by pushing us closer together – which is, of course, ironic, since one of his objectives is to break the alliance,” Bennett said. “But he doesn’t seem to have figured that one out yet.”
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