BERLIN — Among the rituals that North Korea’s young dictator Kim Jong-un has embraced is saber rattling. And in the run-up to annual military maneuvers between South Korea and the U.S., he was at it again. He threatened an “unimaginable holocaust” or “catastrophe” that would destroy inter-Korean relations if the traditional army operations went ahead as usual.
But on Monday the maneuvers began anyway. They are an annual representation of the South Korean-U.S. alliance against the Communist North and its Chinese allies. There are two distinct exercises: Under code name “Key Resolve,” operations are computer-simulated over the course of 11 days, and under code name “Foal Eagle,” the Air Force, Army and Navy run field exercises that will continue until the middle of April and involve more than 10,000 members of the armed forces.
In 2013, the North Korean leadership in Pyongyang boasted about its nuclear potential and threatened attack if the maneuvers took place. The U.S. replied by sending stealth bombers out on patrol.
This year both sides were more subtle with the rhetoric. Ahead of the maneuvers, North Korea allowed long-scheduled reunions between family members living in the two Koreas to take place. Eighty-eight older North Koreans were able to meet privately with relatives from a group of 350 South Koreans. And the U.S. didn’t deploy aircraft carriers.
Instead, the super power — which still has 28,500 soldiers stationed in South Korea — signaled its readiness for combat with symbolic pictures. A week before the start of the maneuvers with South Korea, troops from seven Pacific countries gathered in Thailand, as they have annually since 1982. The operation’s code name is “Cobra Gold,” and it gathers troops from Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and the U.S. — an annual manifestation of American alliances in the Pacific.
This year, elite troops from Thailand, South Korea and the U.S. trained for jungle warfare. They released impressive photos of the U.S. Marine survival exercises, which involved biting through the necks of live chickens, swallowing living insects, and — to quench their thirst in desperate situations — drinking the blood of poisonous snakes that soldiers killed by hand.
In our modern media society, U.S. Marines who don’t shy away from drinking cobra blood no doubt send a more thorough message of combat readiness and courage than simulated computer warfare among higher-ups behind closed doors.
There were parallel political messages. The South Korean Ministry of Defense in Seoul announced that there had been “no adjustments” to the military maneuvers, while the pictures of reunited Koreans hugging each other circled the globe — another uncomplicated maneuver with political symbolism.