Joint drills can still be tweaked, says ministry

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Joint drills can still be tweaked, says ministry

South Korea and the United States will continue to adjust their combined military exercises to support diplomatic efforts toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, said Seoul’s Ministry of National Defense on Thursday.

In a regular press briefing, ministry spokesperson Choi Hyun-soo said there would be “no change in [Seoul’s] posture with regards to modifying the exercises under close bilateral coordination in order to militarily support diplomatic efforts.” When questioned whether this would entail no large-scale drills for the time being, Choi said the ministry had to “observe additional progress” before making a decision.

Seoul and Washington scaled down or suspended a number of joint drills last year, most recently replacing a wintertime air exercise, called Vigilant Ace, with a smaller drill in order to demonstrate goodwill to North Korea in ongoing nuclear negotiations.

With North Korean leader Kim Jong-un announcing this week his country would no longer be bound by a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests and that a “new strategic weapon” was to be unveiled shortly, Seoul appears to be attempting to mollify the North and goad it back to talks with this gesture.

By convention, the allies are set to hold their annual Key Resolve and Foal Eagle combined exercises this spring, sometime around March and April. Last year, South Korea and the United States’ defense chiefs suspended the two drills and replaced them with a smaller variant called the Dong Maeng command post exercise.

Choi said she could not yet reveal what decision had been made with regards to the Foal Eagle drill, adding that it would depend on how events unfold.

North Korea has objected strongly each time South Korea and the United States conduct joint military exercises, arguing that such actions amount to preparations for an invasion. In a speech at a plenary meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party Central Committee on Tuesday, Kim claimed Washington betrayed goodwill by staging “tens of big and small joint military drills” that U.S. President Donald Trump promised to stop.

“If the U.S. persists in its hostile policy towards the DPRK, there will never be the denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, and the DPRK will steadily develop necessary and prerequisite strategic weapons for the security of the state until the U.S. rolls back its hostile policy towards the DPRK and lasting and durable peace-keeping mechanism is built,” Kim said, using the acronym for North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Trump indeed appeared to indulge the North Korean hostility to such drills on numerous occasions, most notably following his first summit with Kim at Singapore in 2018, saying he preferred to see them scrapped.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]

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