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US and South Korea postpone military drills in bid to boost stalled diplomacy with North Korea

U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper delivers a speech during the Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Md., Sept. 18, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo by Wayne Clark)
November 20, 2019

The United States and South Korea on Sunday announced that they are postponing a joint military air exercise criticized by North Korea as provocative in a bid to keep alive foundering nuclear talks with Pyongyang.

“After close consultation and careful consideration, Minister Jeong and I’ve jointly decided to postpone this month’s Combined Flying Training Event,” U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said at a joint news conference with his South Korean counterpart, Jeong Kyeong-doo, on the sidelines of a regional security meeting in Bangkok.

“We have made this decision as an act of goodwill to contribute to an environment conducive to diplomacy and the advancement of peace,” Esper said. “We encourage the DPRK to demonstrate the same goodwill as the considerate decision on conduct of training, exercise and testing.”

DPRK is the acronym for the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The U.S. defense chief urged North Korea “to return to the negotiating table without precondition or hesitation.”

North Korea, however, has remained defiant in the face of what it calls the United States’ “hostile policy.”

In a statement released Sunday, the country’s Foreign Ministry said that nuclear issues will not be discussed when talks with the United States restart unless the withdrawal of U.S. “hostile policy” was put on the agenda, state media reported.

The North’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency that the recent passage of a United Nations resolution on Pyongyang’s human rights was a U.S.-led “political provocation.”

North Korea has previously described the U.N. criticism as a product of U.S. “hostile policy.”

North Korea’s top nuclear negotiator, Kim Myong Gil, said in a statement Thursday that Stephen Biegun, Washington’s special envoy to the country, had sent Pyongyang a message through an unnamed third nation “hoping that the DPRK and the U.S. would meet again within December for negotiations.”

Nuclear negotiations between the U.S. and the North have effectively been deadlocked since working-level talks early last month ended with Kim Myong Gil saying they had broken off “entirely due to the United States’ failure to abandon its outdated viewpoint and attitude.”

In recent weeks, top North Korean officials had repeatedly criticized the U.S. over its position in the talks and over the joint military exercises with the South.

The two allies had initially planned to stage a scaled-down version of the Vigilant Ace air exercises later this month, just as they did last year amid the ongoing talks with the North.

But Pyongyang lashed out at the move, with senior North Korean official Kim Yong Chol, a known regime hard-liner, warning Thursday of a “shocking punishment” if the drills went ahead.

The North views U.S. joint exercises with South Korea as a rehearsal for invasion, though Washington and Seoul say they are defensive in nature.

Jeong said the exercise had been put off pending further consultations between Seoul and Washington, and neither side mentioned a new date.

Esper said he did not consider the postponement a concession to North Korea.

“Our willingness to modify training to keep the door open to an agreement on the denuclearization of the DPRK should not be mistaken for a lack of commitment to advance and defend our shared goals, interests and values.”

Esper said that the U.S. viewed the move as “a good-faith effort … to facilitate a political agreement, a deal if you will, that leads to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

The U.S. defense chief had hinted that the upcoming exercises could be adjusted “depending on what diplomacy may require.”

“The purpose of our forces and exercises is not only to buttress our diplomacy but to also enable and empower it. … So we remain flexible in terms of how we support our diplomats so we do not close any doors that may allow progress on the diplomatic front,” Esper said Friday at a news conference in Seoul.

Vipin Narang, a North Korea expert and professor of international relations at MIT, called the move a “concession” to the North that showed that U.S. President Donald Trump is “desperate” to have the nuclear talks continue. But Narang said postponing the exercises was not what North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wants — the easing of crushing sanctions — and could prompt Kim to harden his position if and when the nuclear talks resume.

“By itself, this will backfire,” Narang said.

“Kim may see this as weakness, a Trump desperate to get a deal,” he said. “That may lead him to harden his position or miscalculate, on the belief that Trump wants and needs the perception of a ‘win’ more than Kim does. So even if this increases the odds of a working-level meeting, it may decrease the odds of an actual deal.”


© 2019 the Japan Times