South Korea and the United States confirmed Tuesday that they will hold joint war games on the divided peninsula after the Olympics despite concerns the drills could jeopardize a fragile detente with North Korea.
The longtime allies had agreed to postpone the annual exercises until after the Winter Games in a bid to ease rising tensions with the nuclear-armed North, which considers them a rehearsal for an invasion.
U.S. military officials have always said the operations known as Key Resolve and Foal Eagle would resume after the March 8-18 Paralympics. But some observers speculated that Seoul may ask for them to be further postponed or scaled down to maintain a spirit of reconciliation with Pyongyang.
Defense Minister Song Young-moo dismissed that idea on Tuesday, telling a parliamentary defense committee that the allies would announce the start date for the drills by the end of March, according to the Yonhap News Agency.
He also said the North didn’t ask for the postponement of the drills as a condition for participating in the Olympics or the inter-Korean talks.
U.S. Forces Korea, which oversees the 28,500 servicemembers stationed in the South, also reiterated the drills will be held as planned.
“The U.S. and (South Korea) agreed to deconflict the timing of the spring exercises in order to provide the best possible conditions for a successful Olympics and Paralympics,” the public affairs office said in a statement.
“We currently intend to conduct them as planned – to include the scope and scale – as part of maintaining a foundation of military readiness,” it said.
American and South Korean commanders insist the war games, which are usually held in late February and early March, are defensive in nature.
“We will execute the two major theater-level command post exercises and one theater-level field training exercise each year,” Gen. Vincent Brooks said last week in written testimony for the House Armed Services Committee.
“These exercises are essential to strengthen the alliance,” he said, adding they also deter North Korean aggression and improve the ability of the two countries to fight together.
North Korea’s decision to join the Winter Games, which began on Feb. 9 and end Sunday, has led to a series of diplomatic breakthroughs such as talks with the South, a visit by a high-level delegation including the North Korean leader’s sister and an invitation for South Korea’s president to hold a summit in Pyongyang.
President Moon Jae-in responded by saying the North must create the right conditions before a summit could be held and must actively engage with the United States.
But the communist state hates the joint war games, which are held in the spring and the fall, and warned on Monday that a move to restart them would be “a wild act of ruthlessly trampling even a small sprout of peace that has been now seen on the Korean peninsula.”
“It is a provocative act of chilling the active efforts of [North Korea] and enthusiasm of the international community to defuse tension and create a peaceful environment,” the Korean Central News Agency, a state-run mouthpiece, said.
The North also criticized a smaller Warrior Strike training exercise with U.S. and South Korean troops that was held before the Olympics, calling it “nothing but a provocative act of war maniacs.”
The Olympics have ushered in a welcome period of calm on the divided peninsula after months of saber rattling between Washington and Pyongyang over the North’s nuclear weapons program. The communist state test-fired several missiles and conducted its sixth and most powerful underground nuclear test last year.
Critics believe the North is playing nice to wrest concessions from the West and loosen economic sanctions aimed at isolating the regime and depriving it of the foreign currency needed for its weapons programs.
Moon struck an optimistic note on Tuesday amid signals the Trump administration may be willing to talk to the North.
“There is still a risk of conflict between North Korea and the U.S., but fortunately the two countries seem to have been feeling the need for dialogue lately,” he said during a meeting with Slovenia’s president, according to his office.
He promised to work to use the momentum from the Olympics to promote a dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang focused on the denuclearization of the peninsula.
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