US-South Korea: Reactions to Annual Joint Military Exercises

On March 1, the annual joint military exercises of US and South Korean forces kicked off. These exercises, which will last two months, will reportedly involve the deployment of thousands of US military personnel in country and the utilization of such US capabilities as the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson, F-22 fighters, and B-2 bombers.

These exercises come at a time when US-South Korean military cooperation is getting heightened international and domestic scrutiny. China is ramping up political and economic pressure against the deployment of the US Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to South Korea while public opposition to THAAD has been growing. Two days before the exercises began, the South Korean government reached agreement with the Lotte Group to acquire the land where the THAAD batteries will be located. Lotte has claimed that the Chinese government stopped construction at one of its projects in China in retaliation for its cooperation with the South Korean government on THAAD.

As in previous years, North Korea’s reaction to the exercises has been strident. On March 3, the ruling party’s official newspaper stated that “new types of strategic weapons will soar” if the military exercises continue. Predata’s analytics indicate that there is a significant probability that Pyongyang will follow through on this threat; indeed, if breaking news reports are correct, the retaliation may already have begun. Our current 30-day prediction for a North Korean missile test/launch is 42% percent, but a review of the best-fit signal for this prediction during the 2015 and 2016 exercises (see below) suggests the odds will go up as this year’s exercise proceeds.

In terms of the impact of these annual exercises on South Korean public opinion, the graphic below displays South Korean digital attention to national military capabilities and defense cooperation with the United States over the past two years. It indicates that these exercises do not always garner significant public attention: while interest spiked during the 2016 exercise, there was no increase during the 2015 event. This year’s exercise is, however, likely to garner significant attention as the public debate about THAAD deployment continues. Indeed, South Korean digital attention to defense issues has been increasing since the beginning of the year. This suggests that the strategic communications elements of this year’s exercise will be particularly important.