North Korea has been threatening the United States with a nuclear attack and repeatedly emphasized that it is no longer afraid of the weapons of the American military.

North Korea-US Relations: Military Exercises Are Not Game Changers

The primary reason behind these threats was the annual joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea. North Korea considers such activities as provocative and a preparation for war.

Some people opine that these military exercises may be ruining any potential diplomatic progress with North Korea given its fiery rhetoric against such activities. Most recently, Pyongyang once again issued a warning that it would use its nuclear weapons against the United States if it would not cancel the Ulchi Freedom Guardian (UFG) military exercise, which started on Monday, August 17.

The UFG is a multinational military exercise involving thousands of soldiers from the United States, South Korea, Australia, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, France, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. It was designed to enhance the readiness of the Combined Forces Command (CFC) against an invasion from North Korea, to protect and maintain stability on the Korean peninsula.

Do military exercises worsen US-North Korea relations?

Do military exercises worsen the diplomatic relations between the United States and North Korea? North Korean President Kim Jong-un is expressing frequent fiery rhetoric against such activities.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) conducted a ten-year (2005 t0 2014) study to determine whether the US-South Korea military exercises provoked North Korea to act negatively, led to worsening relationships, and increased tension on the Korean peninsula.

The CSIS found that the military exercises have “null effect” and are “not game changers” in the overall diplomatic relationship” between the United States and North Korea.

“The past ten years of exercises demonstrated a rough correlation with the status of bilateral relationship prior to the exercises. If US-DPRK relations were coded positively prior to the exercises, it remained positive after the exercise, despite North Korean rhetoric on the contrary. On the other hand, if the relationship was coded negatively prior to the exercises, the exercises tended to reinforce the negative relations in terms of both rhetoric and possible provocations,” wrote Victor Cha, senior adviser and Korea Chair at the CSIS.

North Korea has “split personality”

The study found that North Korea has a “split personality.” Cha said “Pyongyang can compartmentalize its reactions” to the US-South Korea military exercises. It can also “insulate positive inter-Korean relations from its belligerence” against America during the exercise period. For example in 2005 and 2006, Pyongyang’s relations with Seoul (under a progressive government) remained good despite its oppositions on the military exercises.

Furthermore, Cha noted that longer military exercises provided a larger window for North Korea to retaliate. Small –scale provocations during and after exercise period became more common after 2009.

Cha urged the United States and South Korea to “listen carefully” to North Korea. According to him, “Pyongyang’s official rhetoric remains a good indicator if possible small-scale provocative actions during the exercise period.”

Separately, Kim Jin Moo, a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis in Seoul commented that the UFG military exercise should have limited effect on the US-North Korea relations. He explained that Pyongyang perceives the Key Resolve/Foal Eagle military exercises as a larger threat than UFG.

He said, “The North reacts angrily to the Key Resolve/Foal Eagle drills because it is insecure. Also, they react strongly to show off Kim Jong-un’s skills as a young leader.”

Meanwhile, Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertlin, who is now a national security analyst for CNN commented that North Korea’s threats against the United States were nothing more than a complaint from a young leader whose main agenda was to grab attention from the United States, which is more focused on ISIS and al-Qaida in the Arabian, Russia and Ukraine.