The U.S.-South Korea joint Ulchi Freedom Guardian military exercises begin Monday, after days of bellicose rhetoric between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un – and followed by Defense Secretary James Mattis announcing there will be “strong military consequences” if North Korea “initiates hostilities.” Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with their Japanese counterparts in mid-August to discuss North Korea. The two countries said in a joint statement the U.S. is committed to “deploying its most advanced capabilities” in missile defense to Japan.
Meanwhile, China – which is angered over a trade probe launched last week by the Trump Administration to investigate China’s intellectual property practices – will be watching the exercises closely, hoping for continued stability on the Korean Peninsula. Pyongyang, for its part, sees the annual exercises as preparation by the U.S. and South Korea for potential invasion.
The Cipher Brief’s Kaitlin Lavinder spoke with Admiral Jonathan Greenert, former Chief of Naval Operations for the U.S. Navy who served for 15 years in the Asia-Pacific, including as Commander of U.S. Seventh (Asia-Pacific) Fleet. They discussed the U.S.-South Korea exercises and current U.S. relations with North Korea and China.
The Cipher Brief: The upcoming U.S.-South Korea Ulchi exercises are an annual occurrence. In fact, the U.S. and South Korea used to conduct four major exercises every year, as opposed to the two per year they now conduct. What makes the brinksmanship that we have seen coming out of North Korea over the past week or so different from the past? Is there a difference?
Admiral Jonathan Greenert: I don’t see a difference. I have participated in what used to be called Ulchi Focus Lens—it’s now the Ulchi Freedom Guardian—and every single time there is a conclusion by North Korea that this is the road to war and another example of preparation to come running across the border. So I don’t see this as any different. As far as the words, of course, the situation is somewhat different.
TCB: What are your thoughts on the rhetoric from the U.S. side, from the Trump Administration?
Greenert: Regarding this exercise, my thoughts are consistent. The Administration has said they believe this is an exercise that is important, and it is a command post exercise, so it is not the movement of troops or war material. Rather, it is to test and train communication. This message [has been consistent] from Commander of U.S. Forces Korea General Vincent Brooks up to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
TCB: What about Trump himself and his comments about releasing “fire and fury” on the North? Do you think that is effective?
Greenert: I don’t know if that’s effective or not. It’s different. But it is hard to measure if it is effective. Only folks in North Korea can really answer that.
TCB: Going back to these exercises, China in March made remarks to the effect of the U.S. should either dial down the exercises with South Korea or end them altogether in return for trying to get the North to stop its nuclear missile tests. That’s obviously a non-starter for the U.S. Can you explain why, and if that could be a possibility in the future?
Greenert: It’s important when you have such an enormous operation, such as the defense of South Korea, that to be effective, you must do what we call the “command post exercise,” which is the Ulchi series. To not do this would be derelict because there would be no way you could suddenly pull operations together if there was an attack.
Remember, we are in an armistice still, so, technically in conflict. That’s why it is a non-starter. We owe it to the Korean people and our folks in Korea to be sure that we are ready, and the most important part is the coordination and the networking that takes place, and the networks that you test in these series of exercises.
TCB: What is China’s motivation?
Greenert: China wants the status quo and an assurance of the status quo. Any sort of concession to assure that status quo by the U.S. and South Korea and/or Japan would give China that assurance.
TCB: What do you mean by “status quo”?
Greenert: I mean a North Korea and a South Korea, and no movement toward or concern of or belief that there could be a unification on the peninsula and/or a failure of the regime. A stable regime in North Korea is the status quo, in China’s eyes.
TCB: Do you think that having nuclear capabilities is necessary for a stable North Korea?
Greenert: I don’t think so. From 1953 until now, North Korea has not been nuclear-capable, and no one has threatened to overthrow that regime. Any instability has been internally generated. What I mean by that is, either the regime has failed to take care of its country and its people internally, and/or they have threatened others externally – from my view, as an American.
TCB: The Ulchi exercises are a computer simulation that produces and tests responses to an attack from North Korea. Will there be a focus on a cyberattack from North Korea?
Greenert: There will definitely be what they call a branch or sequel of that.
Some broad, large cyber event both ways probably warrants its own exercise because there is limited amount of time, and before you take away all the networks, you want to get people consistent. They’ve got to understand the basics before they get into complex plays, such as corrupted networks.
TCB: Do you have any final thoughts on the upcoming exercises?
Greenert: Everyone needs to, again, pay attention to tangible movement and operation and what’s going on and where our people are at, as opposed to rhetoric. We are all better off if we do that, with regards to perception of where the nation is stability-wise. I don’t want to trivialize both North Korea and this perceived road to conflict. But we need to look at what’s really happening tangibly.