Joint drills may start on April 1

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Joint drills may start on April 1

South Korean and U.S. joint military exercises could begin as early as April 1, according to multiple defense officials, amid a detente on the peninsula and an inter-Korean summit planned for later that month.

Two U.S. defense officials told CNN Wednesday that the Pentagon has scheduled the annual Foal Eagle military exercise with South Korea for March 31, or April 1 local time.

NBC also reported Tuesday that “massive” joint military exercises will run from the end of March through May, citing three U.S. defense officials, with Foal Eagle slated for March 1 and Key Resolve for mid-to-late April.

Korea and the United States usually hold Key Resolve, computer-simulated war games, and Foal Eagle, a combined field training exercise, over two months in early spring.

The rare inter-Korean summit, only the third of its kind, is scheduled for April, meaning that it will likely coincide with the joint military exercises.

President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump agreed in early January to postpone the joint exercises for the safety and security of the PyeongChang Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, and to promote a spirit of peace.

Consequently, North Korea took part in the Olympics, paving the way for a South Korean special delegation’s visit to Pyongyang this week. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un offered to have discussions with the United States on denuclearization and normalization of ties, and promised a moratorium on nuclear and ballistic missile tests during those talks.

The large-scale South Korea-U.S. drills are regularly denounced by the North as a rehearsal for an invasion and usually escalate military tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

The Paralympics kick off Friday and end March 18.

Korean military sources have also indicated that Foal Eagle will take place on April 1 and that it is reviewing holding the Key Resolve exercise from April 23.

Last year, Foal Eagle kicked off on March 1, lasting eight weeks, and Key Resolve took place between March 13 and 24.

Neither the Pentagon or Korean Ministry of National Defense have officially confirmed the dates.

South Korean Minister of National Defense Song Young-moo in late February said Seoul and Washington will jointly announce a new schedule for the annual military exercises soon after the Games end in keeping with a “neither confirm nor deny” procedure.

Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Col. Chris Logan told NBC, “Additional information will be released after the Paralympics,” which end on March 18.

Choi Hyun-soo, spokesperson for the Korean Defense Ministry, also declined to confirm that the exercise will take place on April 1 in a briefing in Seoul Thursday. “We have said that we will speak on this after the Paralympics end,” she said. “We still maintain that position, so please wait.”

Defense Minister Song met with Adm. Scott Swift, outgoing commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, headquartered in Hawaii, on Thursday and remarked in a joking manner that Washington would not need to deploy U.S. strategic assets to the Korean Peninsula during this round of joint military exercises.

Song said that many changes are expected in inter-Korean relations and around the Korean Peninsula. He noted that the inter-Korean summit will take place at the end of April and that the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises will be taking place.

He then told Swift, whose three-year term comes to an end in May, “You would not need to deploy extended deterrence assets like nuclear-powered submarines during your remaining tenure as commander.”

Song’s remark fueled further speculation that Seoul may ask Washington to scale down the scope of the annual joint military exercises in light of the current atmosphere of engagement with the North. A Defense Ministry official later said that Song’s remarks to Swift were made “jokingly” as a well-wishing gesture in the context that the commander is departing.

Chung Eui-yong, head of the Blue House’s National Security Office and Moon’s special envoy, told reporters at the Blue House Tuesday that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un “conveyed the position that he understands that the South Korea-U.S. military exercises, postponed for the PyeongChang Olympics, will be held in April at the same scope of the previous year.”

Kim was said to have expressed hope that “as the situation on the Korean Peninsula becomes stabilized, the South Korea-U.S. joint military exercises may also be adjusted,” according to Chung, who headed to Washington Thursday as President Moon’s special envoy to brief U.S. officials on his Pyongyang trip.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged the United States and North Korea to hold talks sooner rather than later in a press briefing on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress in Beijing on Thursday. Wang was quoted as saying by China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency that China’s suspension-for-suspension proposal has proved to be “a right prescription for the problem in creating the basic conditions needed for improving inter-Korea relations.”

China has been pushing for a dual-suspension initiative, calling for a halt to North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests in exchange for a freeze in joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea.

Moon Chung-in, presidential special adviser for unification, foreign, and national security, told JTBC on Wednesday that when he spoke to experts in the United States recently, there had been worries about a “crisis on the Korean Peninsula in April.”

He added, “But North Korea’s message this time is completely different from before, clearly stating, ‘We can allow it [joint exercises] if it is the same scale as before.’ Second, there were worries that Kim Jong-un will ‘not explicitly mention denuclearization,’ but he said it this time around.”

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