The annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises this week assumed unusual significance, coming as they did soon after North Korea’s latest and most threatening ballistic missile test. Pyongyang charged on Monday that they constituted a “grave provocation” that could lead “to the brink of nuclear war.” North Korean state media hurled further insults at the “insane President Trump [who] is running wild” and the “puppet war maniacs” in South Korea.
The hysterical reaction from Pyongyang contributes to the atmosphere of crisis in the region, though given the typically extreme rhetoric that comes from that capital, America and its allies must take it in the overall context of the fraught relations of the two Koreas. To a certain extent, hysteria is par for the course.
The U.S. Air Force responded, as it should have, in measured tones, saying that the exercises were “not in response to any incident or provocation” and pointing out that the two countries engage in war games every year.
The obvious fact of the matter is that “grave provocation” would apply more accurately to the North Korean missile test, which seemed aimed at threatening not only South Korea and Japan but even the U.S. west coast.
Having said that, it cannot be denied that the U.S.-South Korea maneuvers are a show of force designed to deter offensive action, to rattle the saber rattlers. The joint drill features simulated strikes using 230 aircraft, including the largest deployment of stealth fighters ever sent to the area, as well as some 12,000 American troops.
In addition, South Korea’s Yonhap News said simulated attacks on North Korean nuclear and missile targets are part of the 5-day joint exercise, known as Vigilant Ace.
Of course, it is the relentless belligerence of the North that has necessitated such military activities. The United States would like nothing better than to scale down such exercises and ultimately bring home its troops from the peninsula. But that can only happen when the two countries reach a permanent peace agreement, something that has never seemed farther away since the end of the Korean War in 1953.
In the meantime, tension mounts. The suggestion made by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) on Sunday that the U.S. should begin removing the families of military personnel from South Korea was a further indication, if any were needed, of how close at least some senior officials think war has come.
“It’s crazy to send spouses and children to South Korea, given the provocation of North Korea. South Korea should be an unaccompanied tour,” Graham told CBS News. “So, I want them to stop sending dependents, and I think it’s now time to start moving American dependents out of South Korea.”
While concern for American citizens currently in the region is certainly warranted, the decision whether or not to move them out of potential harm’s way is intimately tied to the question of whether there will be a conflict. And that must be deliberated by the highest echelons in Washington, with the president being the ultimate decisor.
It also has to be borne in mind that a decision to move U.S. civilians out of Korea, as unaggressive as it might seem, might have its own undesirable consequences. Pyongyang could easily interpret it as a prelude to military action, as evacuation of civilians often is. As such, it would have to be carefully calculated, for the safety of those civilians on the one hand, but so as not to precipitate catastrophic overreaction in the North, on the other. The ifs and whens require the utmost thought.
Senator Graham himself expressed confidence in the people who are every day examining the military and political aspects of the situation and presumably preparing for every imaginable scenario.
Referring to the Trump administration, Graham, who has served in Congress since 1995, said, “He’s got the best national security team of anybody I have seen since I have been in Washington.” That’s good to hear. But even “the best security team” will need much prayer and the help of the Alm-ghty in making the decisions of life and death which now confront them.
As this administration struggles to find a way to contain the very grave threat posed by Pyongyang, it is up to all of us to ask Hashem to give the decision-makers the wisdom to make the right decisions as they try to steer the world toward peace and not war.