The communist state of North Korea vowed Tuesday to respond to the military drills conducted jointly by the U.S. and South Korea with "merciless retaliation," according to North Korean state-run Korean Central News Agency.
On Monday, 17,500 U.S. troops joined with 50,000 South Korean soldiers for 10 days of joint military exercises. These drills, which are held annually, prepare both militaries for a possible attack from Pyongyang, North Korea's capital.
This year, the drills began in the midst of heightened tensions with North Korea. Washington and Pyongyang had been trading threats and shows of strength for weeks and culminated with North Korean President Kim Jong Un threatening to strike Guam.
Kim backed down after the U.S. issued serious threats of retaliation and China said that it would abandon North Korea should it strike first.
According to USA Today, Pyongyang gave KCNA a statement that said the U.S. and South Korea "should take the whole responsibility for catastrophic results from (a) reckless war game."
Pyongyang also accused the U.S. and South Korea of conducting drills for a “beheading operation” designed to remove Kim from power, according to the Washington Post. Pyongyang added that the annual drills could be a pretext for the joint forces to strike at the Kim regime.
“No one can vouch that these huge forces concentrated in South Korea will not go over to an actual war action now that the military tensions have reached an extreme pitch in the Korean Peninsula,” the Kim government said through KCNA. “Moreover, high-ranking bosses of the U.S. imperialist aggressor forces flew into South Korea to hold a war confab. Such huddle is increasing the gravity of the situation.”
According to the Post, Gen. Vincent Brooks, commander of the U.S. Forces in Korea, said that the drills will continue to happen every year until the joint forces "have reason not to," and the reason "has not yet emerged."
Adm. Harry Harris, the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, said that the drills are essential to diplomacy with North Korea, as peace is best attained and kept by strength.
“A strong diplomatic effort backed by a strong military effort is key because credible combat power should be in support of diplomacy and not the other way around,” Harris said.
Is North Korea still a threat?
The short answer is yes.
North Korea's decision to back down from its threats to attack Guam proved the nation has a limit to how far it's willing to go — and it's not as far as actually going to war.
As Secretary of Defense James Mattis warned Pyongyang, the U.S. would destroy North Korea head to toe with overwhelming technology and military expertise. Combine that with China's declaration that it would allow Washington's "fire and fury" to roll over North Korea should it strike first, and Pyongyang was obligated to lose this game of chicken.
However, Pyongyang still has — according to experts — intercontinental ballistic missiles and has developed miniaturized nuclear devices small enough to be attached to missiles (though there's not yet evidence that the country has actually developed nuclear ICBMs).
While North Korea may not be willing to use nuclear weapons to start a war, the country could become an nuclear arms dealer or an ally of another nation willing to use them against the U.S. Though North Korea may not be a direct threat to the U.S. for the time being, its ability to make nukes and hatred of the U.S. makes it necessary for Washington to keep an eye on Kim's government at all times.
However, Pyongyang's threat of "merciless retaliation" for the South Korean/U.S. drills is likely bluster. The Kim regime believes it is imperative to keep up appearances — every act that makes Pyongyang look like the smallest kid at the playground must be responded to with machismo and muscle flexing.
A perfect example is the Ryomyong Street in Pyongyang, which contains a line of modern looking high-rises meant to represent the country’s strength and defiance against the rest of the world.
Built in the span of a year with lacking supplies and rushed work, the project began in April 2016, and opened in May 2017. The Kim regime's loyalists and top government officials were to receive flats within the towers, however, very few chose to live there as they viewed the towers as unsafe.
Why was Ryomyong Street constructed so quickly, or even constructed at all?
Because the U.N. passed sanctions on North Korea over their continuation of the nuclear program in March 2016. Ryomyong Street was nothing more than a propaganda project meant to show the North Korean people that Kim was still in charge and stronger than ever.
To North Korea, appearances are everything. For a people of an isolationist state defiant to a world they are told is looking to bring them down, shows of strength and threats keeps the people feeling like they should lean on their oppressors lest there be consequences both from without and within.
Expect to see more threats from North Korea, but also expect most of them to be hollow.