South Korea Military Drills: Symbolic Or Provocation?

Tensions have escalated between the Korean nations following the North's shelling of a South-held island on Tuesday. North Korea warned Friday that joint military exercises this weekend between the U.S. and South Korean military could push the peninsula to the "brink of war." But what do the planned drills entail, and why does North Korea see it as a move toward war? Mary Louise Kelly speaks with retired Army Gen. Burwell Baxter Bell, who was the U.S. commander of forces in South Korea from 2006 to 2008.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

North Korea fired artillery once again today, this time in what appeared to be a drill on its own territory. That comes as the U.S. commander in South Korea toured the island that the North Koreans attacked this week. General Walter Sharp called on the North to stop any future attacks.

General WALTER SHARP (Commander of U.S. Forces): What I see here physically, that North Korea attacked this island, which is in clear violation of the army's disagreement.

KELLY: Well, we're going to look ahead now to Sunday, that's when a U.S. aircraft carrier, the George Washington, starts joint exercises with South Korean forces. Those exercises are expected to last four days and it's an open question whether this very visible display of U.S. military might will help calm or further inflame tensions in the region.

One veteran of military exercises in these waters is retired Army General B.B. Bell. He commanded U.S. forces in Korea from 2006 until 2008. Welcome.

General B.B. BELL (Retired, Army): Thank you, Mary Louise, good to be on with you today.

KELLY: We're glad to have you. So, let me get some specifics about what exactly is underway. When we talk about an aircraft carrier like the George Washington moving into Korean waters, how many support ships go with it? What kind of support ships?

Gen. BELL: Mary Louise, the number of ships that would accompany an aircraft carrier on a mission, in this case an exercise, one, it's classified. But, two, it would vary depending upon the threat. So somewhere between six and 10 ships would be normal, and there's certainly somewhere between eight and 10,000 sailors and other troops involved in this exercise.

KELLY: Okay. So, what all of these ships and all of these sailors get out there this weekend, what actually happens out there? Does that mean that there is a scenario in place, a fictional scenario and they're enacting what a response would look like? Are they actually firing? How does it work?

Gen. BELL: Mary Louise, that's - your first comment is exactly correct. Assuming that airpower would be applied in a military response to some provocation - I'm making that assumption. One, the pilots have to be briefed on potential targets and they've got to fly missions whose profiles would approximate the kind of missions that they would be flying, certainly not over North Korea, but over simulated target areas in and around the west sea or even potentially in South Korea itself

And similarly, the other ships, the submarines, the destroyers, et cetera, who have to protect the George Washington, are doing all the things that they would do normally to ensure that that task force remains safe and capable of conducting its mission.

KELLY: In this corner of the world, how often would exercises on this scale be undertaken?

Gen. BELL: When things aren't normal, you would expect these kind of exercises a couple times a year at a minimum. That could go up if tensions were high and it was necessary to be more ready and could be down if rapprochement is on the table and if everyone is acting sensibly.

KELLY: That's interesting that you say the number of exercises goes up as tensions rise. I mean, North Korea, as I'm sure you've seen, has called this a provocation to conduct this type of exercise at this particular point in time. Do they have a point?

Gen. BELL: I don't think they have a point at all. This is a standard ploy of the North Koreans to threaten military engagement, in fact conduct provocations as we've seen both here recently with the attack on the island and also the sinking of the Cheonan back in March, where they are trying to drive the United States to the negotiating table.

So it is necessary for the allied forces, principally South Korea and the United States, to be ready in case North Korea makes a major mistake and conducts a serious advancement of forces across the DMZ or at sea.

And so, when you see increased provocations by the North, you would expect military commanders to call for and conduct increased readiness exercises to ratchet up their readiness. But do it in a way that's announced and done in a way that the North Koreans cannot mistake it for a provocative act. And they won't be able to mistake it because it's very clear what this is. It's a training and readiness exercise.

KELLY: That's retired Army General B.B. Bell. He was commanding general of U.S., allied and U.N. forces in Korea from 2006 until 2008. Thanks so much.

Mr. BELL: Thank you, Mary Louise.

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