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SK-US spring exercises usually prompt drills by North — this time, it’s focused on potato farming instead

By Jae-Jung Suh | March 12, 2024 | Originally published in Hankyoreh 


As the Freedom Shield military exercises continue, the North has redirected efforts once used to respond to the drills to instead break ground on factories as part of a campaign to modernize the country and revitalize its economy.



South Korea and the US initiated their “Freedom Shield” joint military exercises on March 4. The two sides plan to hold a total of 48 field maneuvers through March 14, which is twice as many as last year. The joint exercises will cover air strikes, tactical live fire, air combat and bombing runs. As part of a multiyear push to revitalize the UN Command, 12 UN member states (including Australia, Canada, France, the UK, Greece and Italy) are taking part in the exercises.


But why do South Korea and the US hold large-scale military exercises in March, at the beginning of spring? Since the two countries launched their “Team Spirit” joint exercises in 1976, they’ve been holding large-scale military exercises nearly every March, notwithstanding some changes in nomenclature. Granting that the exercises have become a yearly occurrence, why do they have to be held in the spring? 


Why South Korea and the US hold military exercises in March


North Korea has always reacted testily to these joint military exercises. It has mobilized its troops to carry out its own military exercises and also activated civil defense organizations such as the Worker-Peasant Red Guards, which are equivalent to South Korea’s reserve forces. In other words, North Korea has basically mobilized the entire country to counter the US military, which has the world’s most advanced technology, and the South Korean military, which is equipped with far superior equipment.


When almost the entire country has to leave the workplace to spend 10 or more days in military exercises, that’s obviously going to present difficulties for economic activity. Factories can’t run, production is delayed.


A shortage of workers in the busy spring planting season can ruin the year’s crop. That’s nowhere truer than in North Korea, a country where the year’s crop depends on assistance from soldiers and students who are given farm duties during the busy season.


So it’s hard to even calculate the damage caused when not only soldiers and students, but the farm workers themselves, have to leave their fields and take part in military exercises.


For North Korea, the South Korea-US military exercises are not only a challenge for its security, but a threat to its very survival. Perhaps that was the target of the South Korea-US exercises all along.


But more recently, North Korea’s reaction to those exercises has been different from before. While the North continues to protest the exercises, it doesn’t always respond with military exercises of its own. For example, North Korea held a groundbreaking ceremony for a factory in Songchon County, South Pyongan Province, on Feb. 28, just a few days before this year’s Freedom Shield exercises were scheduled to begin in early March.


The groundbreaking in Songchon marked the beginning of the “20x10 regional development policy,” a 10-year plan that seeks to revitalize the entire North Korean countryside.


There were several odd things about the groundbreaking ceremony. For one, it was attended by Defense Minister Kang Sun-nam, KPA General Political Bureau Director Jong Kyong-thaek, military corps commanders, and soldiers mobilized for the construction work. That ceremony was also when North Korea revealed the existence of the KPA 124th Regiment, which has been newly organized to implement the 20x10 regional development policy.


To sum up, North Korea created a new regiment of military engineers to build factories in its provinces right when South Korea and the US were planning to launch joint military exercises on twice as large a scale as last year. And then on Thursday, while the Freedom Shield exercises were still going strong, North Korea’s state-run newspaper the Rodong Sinmun reported that other groundbreaking ceremonies for factories in the 20x10 regional development policy had been held in the city of Kusong and the counties of Sukchon, Unpha, Kyongsong, Orang and Onchon.


That’s quite different from before. North Korea is spurring on factory construction in areas around the country even as the South Korea-US joint military exercises are underway. On March 4, when Freedom Shield kicked off, large numbers of tractors were sent to the city of Samjiyon and the counties of Taehongdan and Paegam in Ryanggang Province to help with potato farming.


Back on Feb. 23, ground was broken on the third stage of a homebuilding project in the Hwasong area of Pyongyang with the goal of quickly building 10,000 new homes over the next year. Troops are also being mobilized for that construction project, too.


So while military exercises may be taking place south of the armistice line, North Korea is busy with farming and is stepping up construction work on homes and factories.



A return to self-sufficiency in the COVID-19 lockdown


The experience of Kimhwa County and the city of Samjiyon speaks volumes. After being nearly wiped out by flooding in August 2020, Kimhwa has not been merely restored to its original form, but completely transformed into a modern city. Considering that this was a meager, run-down county in the uplands of Kangwon Province, that shouldn’t be taken to mean the construction of some state-of-the-art industrial complex. However, factories have been built to produce garments, foodstuffs, everyday items and paper.


What’s notable here is the timing of the rebuilding project in Kimhwa County. The year and six months between early 2021 and June 2022 were when North Korea had closed its borders because of COVID-19 and had absolutely no physical exchange with the outside world. Not only humanitarian aid but even material imports were completely cut off and all activities were curtailed because of COVID-19, but new factories were still set up in Kimhwa County, and the area was completely rebuilt. Modern automated factories were built, all the machinery and parts were sourced domestically, and the factories were designed such that the raw materials needed for production could be supplied locally.


The inspiration for that may have come from the experience of Samjiyon. Numerous homes and public buildings were put up in the city in the two years between early 2020 and late 2021, the same period when the border was closed. Troops were also deployed to the construction project, which was overseen by the 216 Division.


Since it wasn’t feasible to truck in construction materials to an upland city on the slopes of Mt. Paektu, many of the materials were sourced locally. To make the cement stretch out, the diatomaceous earth that is so common in Samjiyon was prepared as an admixture, and when making bricks, local mud was mixed with the soot produced as a byproduct of a potato processing facility. Agglomerate marble, planking and other lumber were also reportedly sourced on a local level.


In July 2022, one year after the rebuilding project was completed in Kimhwa County, products from county factories displayed at an everyday goods fair in Wonsan, Kangwon Province, were positively reviewed by everyday consumers.


As for Samjiyon, the city is being labeled a “socialist utopia.” North Korea seems to have found the mojo to modernize its economy and spread development to the whole country. North Korea is willing to wage an all-out war with economic sanctions without getting worked up about the South Korea-US military exercises.


Recent days have seen subtle barometric shifts in the policies of Japan and the US toward North Korea. The cabinet of Fumio Kishida in Japan is playing hard to get, all while leaving the possibility of a summit-level meeting with the North on the table. For its part, the North has actively responded to these overtures, and suggested that it has no intention of fighting Japan. 


Even the Biden administration in the US recently said that “interim steps” were necessary on the path to North Korea’s denuclearization, signaling a shift to managing ties with North Korea. 


And then there’s the Yoon administration in South Korea, the lone holdout in hard-line tactics. In a speech delivered to mark the anniversary of the March 1 Independence Movement, the president referred to a “free, unified Korean Peninsula,” and intimated a desire for regime change in Pyongyang. 


Then, on March 7, Defense Minister Shin Won-sik gave orders that “if North Korea uses our defense drills as an excuse for provocations” to “go beyond the ‘act first, report later’ and instead ‘retaliate first, report later,’ in accordance with the principle of responding immediately, powerfully and definitely.”


It may well be the case that North Korea’s quietly getting the last laugh here. 


Suh Jae-jung is professor of political science and international relations at the International Christian University in Tokyo.

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