The annual joint military drills between the US and South Korea have begun. North Korea sees them as a provocation, calling them rehearsals for an invasion, but has toned down its rhetoric.
Once again, the US and South Korea have started their joint military drills. "Key Resolve" lasts just one week and is a largely computer-simulated exercise. "Foal Eagle," which will go on for eight weeks, involves air, ground and naval field training.
A combined total of 12,700 US troops will participate. There will be more South Korean soldiers but the numbers are unclear - less than the 200,000 that participated in last year's exercise. There will also be no aircraft carrier or strategic bombers this year.
Last year, the situation on the Korean peninsula was particularly tense, with the joint maneuvers beginning just days after North Korea had conducted a third underground nuclear test on 12 February.
This year, "these measures are about not provoking the North," explains Christoph Pohlmann from the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Seoul. "However, the South Koreans do not want to appear too soft either."
"The scenarios are realistic, enabling us to train on our essential tasks and respond to any crisis which may arise," Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the commander of the Combined Forces Command, announced two weeks ago. He said the drills were of a defensive nature and would play out various scenarios to combat a North Korean invasion.
Same old message
Every year, Seoul and Washington repeat the same message to Pyongyang, which considers the drills - that have been taking place since 1997 - as a provocation, routinely accusing the South of planning an invasion and reacting with aggressive rhetoric and threats.
"We sternly warn the US and the South Korean authorities to stop the dangerous military exercises which may push the situation on the peninsula and the north-south ties to a catastrophe," a spokesman for the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea (CPRK) said last month in a statement that was published by North Korea's state news agency.
However, generally there have been fewer threatening gestures this year. "North Korea has pointed out that those to blame in the end are not the South Koreans but the US who are behind this provocation," says Patrick Köllner from the Hamburg-based German Institute of Global and Area Studies.
This is in line with the tone set by Kim Jong Un in his New Year's speech, agrees Pohlmann. "Just like South Korean President Park Geun-hye, he expressed the desire to improve inter-Korean relations."
A rare concession
Whereas Pyongyang had first insisted that the joint exercises be postponed until after the first reunion in three years of families divided by the Korean War - which has raised hopes of greater cooperation between the two countries. When Seoul refused, the North - in a rare concession - allowed the family reunion to go ahead as planned.
These are usually the occasion for political instrumentalization. In the past, the North has demanded financial aid or political concessions for allowing the highly-emotional family gatherings to take place. It has also been known to cancel them at the last minute.
This time, however, Pyongyang only asked - not demanded - that the drills be postponed. Several hundred relatives are currently gathered at the North Korean resort of Mount Kumgang - some of them being reunited after a separation of over six decades.
Christoph Pohlmann thinks that North Korea has certain concrete expectations from the reunion. "For example, the reopening of scenic tours at the Kumgang Mount tourist complex."
However, Patrick Köllner says that a lot remains unclear: "We don't know whether South Korea has made any concessions and whether they will be ready to supply the North with food and fertilizer or drive forward joint projects, for example, in tourism."
Pohlmann warns, however, that a small incident could suffice to exacerbate the situation on the Korean peninsula. "Basically, the situation continues to be unstable. It is too early to hope for a period such as that of the Sunshine Policy (1998 – 2007)," he says. Köllner agrees: "There is no apparent new warmth in relations, therefore one should not expect too much of all this."
"We'll only get out of this constant cycle of confrontation and de-escalation when the security situation has changed structurally," he adds. The conditions would involve either regime change in North Korea or a demonstrative collaborative effort between the US and China.
Neither seem forthcoming.