ROK Navy units train near Pohang during the annual Foal Eagle exercise, which began yesterday (AFP image via the Washington Post)

U.S. and South Korean forces have launched their annual spring exercises, triggering the usual round of bluster and threats from Pyongyang.

The field portion of the allied drills, nicknamed “Foal Eagle,” began on Monday and will continue for up to eight weeks.  According to the Washington Post, early elements of the exercise rehearsed precision strikes against key targets in the DPRK:

“The exercises will revolve around a wartime plan, OPLAN 5015, adopted by South Korea and the United States last year. The plan has not been made public but, according to reports in the South Korean media, includes a contingency for surgical strikes against the North’s nuclear weapons and missile facilities, as well as “decapitation” raids to take out North Korea’s leaders. The JoongAng Ilbo newspaper reported that Kim Jong Un would be among them. 

The joint forces will also run through their new “4D” operational plan, which details the allies’ preemptive military operations to detect, disrupt, destroy and defend against North Korea’s nuclear and missile arsenal, the Yonhap News Agency reported. “The focus of the exercises will be on hitting North Korea’s key facilities precisely,” a military official told the wire service.”

Nothing particularly revealing about those disclosures; as nuclear weapons become an increasingly important asset for Kim Jong-un, it’s logical that the U.S. and South Korea would develop plans aimed at mitigating that threat.  The same calculus applies to Pyongyang’s large missile force, capable of targeting all of South Korea, Japan and even the western portion of the CONUS.  Analysts are divided as to whether North Korea can put a nuclear warhead on its missiles, but even in a “best case” scenario (from an American perspective) acquisition of that capability is no more than a few years away.  

Despite the initial emphasis on precision strike, much of the training conducted Foal Eagle and Key Resolve–the companion command post drill–is defensive in nature, aimed at reacting to a potential attack by the DPRK.  

Predictably, the North Korean propaganda machine treats the annual allied exercises as a prelude to an invasion.  Monday’s official reaction from Pyongyang was particularly bellicose, accusing Washington and Seoul of planning a “beheading operation,” aimed at removing Kim Jong-un and his regime. 

Of course, there was a certain, bitter irony in that decapitation claim.  In January 1968, North Korean commandos slipped through the DMZ and headed to Seoul, planning to assassinate South Korean President Park Chung-hee at the Blue House, his official residence.  Along the way, the DPRK team captured four South Korean civilians, who stumbled across their camp.  Instead of killing their captives, the commandos gave them a long lecture on the benefits of communism, releasing them with a warning not to tell the authorities.  The ROK civilians–all members of the same family–made a beeline for the nearest police station, prompting South Korea and U.S. forces to begin a massive search for the infiltrators.  

Despite a heavy security presence, the commando team still managed to make their way to Seoul and got within 100 yards of the Blue House before being detected.  A massive firefight ensued, and the North Koreans scattered.  Only two members of the group, dubbed Unit 124, survived.  One was captured by ROK soldiers; was later pardoned and became a Presbyterian minister; the other officer made it back to North Korea and was eventually promoted to general.  The daughter of the ROK leader targeted by the commandos is now President of South Korea.  

Fifteen years later, Pyongyang tried again, targeting ROK President Chun Doo-hwan, during an official visit to Burma.  Chun was scheduled because his motorcade was running behind, but three members of the South Korea cabinet died when DPRK agents detonated bombs at the shrine the ROK president was scheduled to visit. Even in recent years, concerns about potential decapitation plots from Pyongyang prompt ROK security officials to dispatch multiple aircraft and vehicles for a presidential visit, with the chief executive choosing his transportation at literally the last moment.  

Beyond the ever-present assassination threats, ROK leaders must also worry about North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.  Pyongyang conducted its latest underground nuclear test in January, and just last week, Kim Jong-un ordered his military to “be ready to use nuclear weapons at any time,” given the “gangster-like” sanctions imposed after its most recent round of sabre-rattling, including the nuclear test.  At this point, no one is really sure how many nuclear devices Kim has, or how he could actually deliver them.  But given the density of South Korea’s population–more than 12 million live in Seoul–and proximity to the DPRK, threats about creating “lakes of fire” below the DMZ must be taken seriously.  

Which brings us to another matter, one that is usually ignored during the annual rhetoric games that accompany allied exercises in South Korea.  While media outlets on the peninsula (and elsewhere) dutifully print Pyongyang’s claim that Foal Eagle is simply the run-up to an invasion, they ignore that fact that North Korea is conducting its own drills, on a scale far larger than the U.S.-ROK exercise.  

It’s a yearly event called the Winter Training Cycle or WTC.  From late November until the end of March, the DPRK conducts its most important military training of the year.  Beginning with small unit drills, the WTC steadily builds through the winter months and concludes with a national-level exercise in mid-to-late March.  In some years, Pyongyang likes to punctuate the nationwide drill with a special event highlighting North Korean military power.  Last fall, some analysts speculated that Kim Jong-un might conduct a nuclear test to cap the WTC, but that event was held in January.  That has generated new concerns about some other “capstone” event in the coming weeks, but there are no firm indicators that it will occur, or what it might be. 

This much is certain: during the winter months, the real military action in Korea takes place north of the 38th parallel.  And the same pundits and media types who worry about how Foal Eagle will be viewed in Pyongyang ignore the importance of the WTC.  True, the overall level of North Korean military activity during the winter months has declined over the past 20 years, reflecting the economic problems that affect the Hermit Kingdom.  But the WTC remains the most important military event of this–or any other year–in the DPRK and what’s going on beyond the DMZ is our best barometer of North Korean capabilities and intent.  
ADDENDUM:  As we’ve noted in the past, DPRK military training drops off dramatically with the arrival of spring, when most units are assigned to “agricultural activities.”  Put another way, if the military doesn’t devote time and resources to growing its own food, they will go hungry in the winter.  If Kim Jong-un wants to send a military message to Seoul and Washington (beyond an artillery attack on a ROK-controlled island or another missile launch) his window of opportunity is closing rapidly.  And, given Pyongyang’s displeasure over the latest round of sanctions, it’s a fair bet that the current WTC may end with a bang, rather than a whimper.