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New study says North Korea uses war games as an excuse to be difficult

A report released Aug. 19 from a Washington, D.C.-based think tank tracked how North Korea reacts to annual military exercises conducted by the U.S. and South Korea.


The result? Kim Jong Un is using the drills as an excuse to act out.

The study conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies doesn't say exactly that, but what it found was a pattern of behavior during the rule of Kim Jong-Il, and another quite different reaction after the younger Kim Jong Un took the reins of power.

"The study shows that annual joint exercises do not provoke North Korea despite such claims in the media and from North Korea," Victor Cha, CSIS Korea Chair and former director for Asian affairs at the White House's National Security Council, told the Wall Street Journal.

U.S. Soldiers set up a support by fire line alongside their Republic of Korea (ROK) Army Soldier counterparts when reacting to enemy contact during a platoon live fire training blank iteration on Rodriguez Live Fire Complex, near the DMZ, Republic of Korea, March 21, 2015, during joint training exercise Foal Eagle 2015. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Steven Hitchcock)

But the younger Kim says the annual war games are a provocation, and the cantankerous dictator routinely flies off the handle and issues wild  threats and warnings in the days leading up to the exercises.

His father, on the other hand, did not respond to the drills the same way. Tensions surrounding joint exercises like Foal Eagle, Ulchi-Freedom Guardian, and Key Resolve are significantly more potent since the elder Kim suffered a stroke in 2008.

U.S. Soldiers move a casualty toward a designated casualty collection point (CCP) with their Republic of Korea (ROK) Army Soldier counterparts near the DMZ, Republic of Korea, March 21, 2015. The training was conducted during joint training exercise Foal Eagle 2015. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Steven Hitchcock)

On top of determining a pattern of behavior around U.S. military exercises, the study also uncovered other key findings.

The first is that the exercises have no lasting impact on relations between North Korea and the United States. When the six-party de-denuclearization talks were still held regularly, the games didn't change the timing or agenda of the talks.

The report also says that the North "compartmentalizes" its response to the annual war games versus other ongoing issues with the U.S. or South Korea.

Cha also told the Wall Street Journal Kim Jong Un uses the games as a way to spin a yarn to his people that the U.S. military is the destabilizing force on the peninsula and the Korean regime under his leadership is the only bulwark against American aggression.

The report should be welcome news for the U.S. military, who maintain an extensive presence on the Korean Peninsula and have since the end of the Korean War.

"It's not the exercises," Cha said, "but the state of diplomacy in the weeks prior that will tell them whether North Korea will do something big in retaliation."