South Korea proposed semiofficial three-way talks to get U.S.-North Korea nuclear negotiations back on track, while Seoul and Washington launched a week of small-scale military exercises that replaced annual war games.
President Moon Jae-in said he will revive his role as mediator between the adversaries after last week’s summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un collapsed without agreement.
“We hope that the two sides will continue their dialogue and that the two leaders will achieve the settlement that was put off this time by meeting again at the earliest date possible,” Moon said in a meeting of his National Security Council.
“Our role has also once more become significant in the process,” he added, calling on his top officials to seek ways to narrow the gap and get U.S. and North Korean officials back to the table in working-level talks.
Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha suggested dialogue involving officials and private experts from the two Koreas and the United States to help bridge differences over the extent of sanctions relief in exchange for denuclearization steps.
The breakdown of the second Trump-Kim summit — held Feb. 27-28 in Hanoi, Vietnam — was a setback for the South, which is eager to advance inter-Korean economic projects and prevent a new conflict on the divided peninsula.
Trump said he had to “walk away” instead of taking what he called a “bad deal.” But the two sides have promised to continue dialogue.
Moon took office at a time when the North and the United States were trading threats of war as Pyongyang showed strong progress in developing a long-range nuclear weapon.
He has frequently had to step in to push the two sides to the table, including helping to set up the first U.S.-North Korean summit on June 12 in Singapore.
“I believe that dialogue between the two sides will eventually lead to a settlement,” he said, but stressed that “a prolonged hiatus or impasse in dialogue is never desirable.”
Moon also insisted that South Korea will press forward with initiatives with the North but will stay within the limits of the U.S.-led economic sanctions, which are aimed at punishing Pyongyang for its nuclear weapons program.
The U.N. Security Council has granted several exemptions to allow projects such as demining operations and a train survey to go forward.
In a bid to keep tensions low, Seoul and Washington have canceled annual war games known as Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, which traditionally have involved tens of thousands of U.S. and South Korean soldiers and the deployment of powerful aircraft carriers and strategic bombers.
The drills always infuriate the communist state, which considers them a rehearsal for an invasion.
Instead, the allies kicked off a rebranded computer-simulated exercise dubbed Dong Maeng, which means alliance, on Monday but gave few details about what it entails. It is due to end March 12, about a quarter of the time previously allotted for springtime drills.
“It is important for professional armies to train and maintain to a standard of readiness,” the top U.S. commander on the peninsula, Gen. Robert Abrams, and South Korea’s Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Park Han-ki, said Sunday. “These exercises are crucial in sustaining and strengthening the alliance.”
The U.S. maintains some 28,500 servicemembers in South Korea, which remains technically at war with the North after their 1950-53 conflict ended in an armistice instead of a peace treaty.
South Korea’s Defense Ministry dismissed concerns that the reorganization of exercises will hurt military readiness.
“We don’t see any problem with our joint defense posture, which will be maintained through the new command post exercise and revised field training programs,” spokeswoman Choi Hyun-soo told reporters Monday.
“Although the length of the exercises is reduced, we will have no problems in achieving the practical goals.”
Trump, meanwhile, reiterated his dislike for the drills, which he has said are too expensive.
“The reason I do not want military drills with South Korea is to save hundreds of millions of dollars for the U.S. for which we are not reimbursed,” he tweeted Sunday. “That was my position long before I become President. Also, reducing tensions with North Korea at this time is a good thing!”
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