Just when you thought it as safe to go back in the water… Amid the regularly scheduled Ulchi-Freedom Guardian combined exercises between the U.S. and the Republic of Korea, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (and I always feel compelled to put that in quotes) launched three short-range ballistic missiles into the ocean.

According to a statement from the U.S. Pacific Command, the missiles launched from Kittae-ryong, North Korea, near the country’s east coast. The command initially believed the first and third missiles failed in flight, but later revised its statement to report the missiles flew approximately 250 kilometers to the northeast. The second of the three launches “appears to have blown up almost immediately.”

a history of provocation

DPRK strongman Kim Jong-un had recently backed off his threat to surround the U.S. territory of Guam with a “sea of fire,” likely due to the very real possibility that the U.S. missile defense capabilities would ensure that the only part of the sea on fire would be that part where the smoldering wreckage of Kim’s missiles landed.

Despite the cooling of rhetoric, Kim clearly still feels the need to flex his muscles when the U.S. and Korea demonstrate their combined abilities each year. Like a child who can’t stand when a sibling has the spotlight, it’s getting difficult to take Kim’s chest-puffing seriously (but failing to take him seriously would be a grave mistake). Kim can’t sit still while his neighbors demonstrate their ability to defend against his threatened aggression.

During last year’s exercise, he test-fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile. In 2015, North and South appeared to be on the brink of actual hostilities when in addition to the usual DPRK missile tests, two South Korean soldiers were wounded by landmines in the Demilitarized Zone. One soldier lost both legs in the initial blast, and his companion lost a leg in a second explosion as he was carrying him to safety. The South Korean government officially accused the DPRK of planting the mines along a known ROK patrol route, a charge the North predictably denied.


U.S. Combined Forces Command-Korea has conducted the exercise, previously known as Ulchi-Focus Lens, alongside Korean troops since 1976.  Ulchi was the name of a seventh-century Korean general. Despite the fact the US-ROK coalition has conducted this exercise in August or September every year for more than 40 years, the DPRK government issued a typically blustery statement. “The US should stop at once arrogant provocations against the DPRK and unilateral demands,” the state-owned Korean Central News Agency said, “and not provoke it any longer.” One wonders what their statement would sound like in the event of an actual war.

Although Ulchi-Freedom Guardian features field exercises and live-fire demonstrations, it is primarily a computer-generated exercise to practice command and control, similar to the corps, division, and brigade-level “Warfighter exercises” run by Ft. Leavenworth’s Mission Command Training Program. In these exercises, headquarters units set up their command posts, then plan and direct operations. A separate “red cell” plays the role of the enemy, while computers simulate the battle’s outcome and feed data to the planners.

But where Warfighter exercises are primarily for the headquarters staffs, Ulchi-Freedom Guardian also features plenty of field exercises for the joint force. That’s plenty of chances for Koreans to hear the sound of freedom, or for the DPRK regime, the sound of their diminishing chances to strike a deal.

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Tom McCuin is a strategic communication consultant and retired Army Reserve Civil Affairs and Public Affairs officer whose career includes serving with the Malaysian Battle Group in Bosnia, two tours in Afghanistan, and three years in the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs in the Pentagon. When he’s not devouring political news, he enjoys sailboat racing and umpiring Little League games (except the ones his son plays in) in Alexandria, Va. Follow him on Twitter at @tommccuin