Tensions with North Korea have been on pause since the start of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, but a recent announcement from Kim regime officials has hinted towards a return to the icy relationship that was on the brink of breaking out into conflict last year.
The U.S. and South Korea have announced that they will resume their war games after the end of the paralympics in March. The annual drills were temporarily halted for the Winter Games. North Korean leaders responded by criticizing the U.S. and accusing it of trying to undermine peace efforts.
Resuming the drills would be "a provocative act of chilling the active efforts of the DPRK and enthusiasm of the international community to defuse tensions and create a peace environment," said the officials through the state-run Korean Central News Agency.
The joint drills are annual events, many of them have been ongoing for years and are planned well in advance. Furthermore, U.S. officials did not say prior to the Olympics that they would be paused indefinitely. Bruce Klingner, the CIA's former deputy division chief for Korea and a current fellow at the Heritage Foundation, told Circa in an interview prior to the start of the games that the North Koreans would likely pursue this path.
"What is likely to happen is the Olympics will come and go," said Klingner. "The U.S. and South Korea will implement their postponed military exercises, North Korea will react strongly to that, North Korea will continue to do missile testing. Irregardless of the Olympics."
North Korea engaged in what has been called a "charm offensive" during the start of the games. It's a common tactic employed by the Kim regime. Essentially, as tensions reach a fevered pitch, North Korea will make some kind of gesture or hint toward an easing in relations in order to get something. It's usually then only a matter of time until the regime returns to its old behavior.
This time around, Kim Jong Un sent his sister, Kim Yo Jong, as his charm offensive emissary. Her comparatively gentler demeanor during the beginning of the games was met with some cautious optimism by South Korean officials, while the media scrutinized her every move. Some referred to her as a princess, others compared her to Ivanka Trump. Despite some skepticism surrounding her motives, Kim Yo Jong was successful in overshadowing Vice President Mike Pence when it came to the media. But the Trump administration has not been fooled by the tactic.
Last week, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats reiterated the threat posed by North Korea's nuclear program.
"This is an existential threat, potentially to the United States, but also to North Korea," said Coats while testifying to the Senate Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence last week. "Kim Jong Un views this as a - any kind of kinetic attack or effort to force him to give up his nuclear weapons is an existential threat to his nation and to his leadership in particular."
Pence was also unmoved by North Korea's sudden gestures.
"Last week at the Olympics, as we cheered on Team USA, we also stood strong with our allies and we made it clear that the United States of America will continue to bring maximum pressure to bear on the dictatorship in North Korea until they stop threatening this country and end their nuclear and ballistic missile program once and for all," said Pence, while speaking in Texas Saturday.
One of the war games on the docket is known as Foal Eagle, an annual exercise which includes tens of thousands of forces simulating what war would be like in North Korea. Prior to the games, more than 200 U.S. and South Korean aircraft participated in Vigilant Ace, another war game in December. Included in the drill were B-1 bombers and F-35 and F-22 figher aircraft... all of which could see action in a potential conflict with North Korea.
North Korea may have made some recent gestures, but just two months ago, it was as aggressive as ever. Once the Olympics are complete, the U.S., South Korea, and the world at large will still have to deal with a rogue regime hell-bent and building a nuclear stockpile.