S. Korea Flexible on Ending Joint US Military Drills

Officials in Seoul are reacting cautiously to the expected suspension of U.S.-South Korea military exercises, but an influential presidential adviser sees it as an important step in the North Korea denuclearization process that is beginning to take shape. 

An announcement could come this week to put on hold the major joint exercises that entail bringing in troops, fighter jets, war ships and other military assets from U.S. bases around the world, according to the South Korean Yonhap news agency quoting unnamed government sources. But routine joint training would continue, said Yonhap. 

Flexible approach

On Monday the South Korean Defense Minister said the issue is still being negotiated. 

“We are still discussing about it. Nothing has yet been decided, and it is still in discussion,” said Choi Hyun-soo, the National Defense Ministry spokesperson.

On Sunday U.S. President Donald Trump said in a tweet that it was his idea to cancel what he called the “war games” conducted by U.S. and South Korean troops, while Washington and Pyongyang are engaged in “good faith” negotiations to implement the denuclearization agreement he reached with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at last week’s Singapore Summit.

Neither the South Korean government nor U.S. military officials were given advance notice that Trump would call for an end to the joint drills. However, South Korean President Moon Jae-in asked for cooperation on this issue and emphasized the need to be “flexible” on possibly easing military pressure on North Korea if denuclearization progress continues.

Reciprocal and anticipatory

Critics of the broad denuclearization agreement reached between Trump and Kim say it lacks any specifics over the extent of nuclear weapons to be included, the deadline for dismantlement, and outside verification requirements. And they oppose the president’s decision to end major joint military exercises, without gaining any major concrete concession in return from Kim.

But Moon Chung-in, a special adviser to the South Korean president, and a strong proponent for increased engagement with North Korea, sees Trump’s friendly embrace of Kim and the unilateral concession he made as parts of a more nuanced diplomatic plan that is beginning to emerge.

“His remarks on the possible suspension of the R.O.K. (Republic of Korea)-U.S. combined military exercises in August, I think the remarks are extremely strategic. It is reciprocal as well as anticipatory,” said Moon, who is also a distinguished professor emeritus of political studies at Yonsei University.

Suspending the military drills, Professor Moon said, is an appropriate response to the North’s seven month suspension of nuclear and missile tests, its agreement to engage in denuclearization talks, and its unilateral closing of a nuclear teat site. 

Ending the joint drills, Moon said, also puts pressure on Pyongyang to be reasonable in return as the two sides discuss the process ahead; allowing in outside inspectors, agreeing to eliminate the North’s nuclear arsenal, and imposing limits on ballistic missiles and other threatening weapon systems, and dismantling the weapons of mass destruction. 

And U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said the tough United Nations sanctions that block 90 percent of North Korean trade will remain in place until there is concrete denuclearization progress.

Trumps’ goodwill gesture on ending the joint drills may help nuclear negotiators bridge the gap between Pyongyang’s incremental approach linking sanctions relief to dismantlement progress, and Washington’s demand for complete denuclearization before providing further concessions.

“I think the two will reach a compromise, with certain characteristics of the ‘one shot deal’ that is mentioned by President Trump, as well as the gradual and synchronized exchange from North Korea. I believe that they will find a midway point,” said Prof. Moon.

Many North Korea security analysts doubt Kim’s intention to completely give up his nuclear deterrent that has long been seen as vital to the survival of his family led rule of the country.

But Kim Jong Un is not his father, say many who support Trump’s outreach. The young leader seems to want to focus more on economic development and has said there would be no need for his country to hold onto nuclear weapons, if trust can be established through a peace treaty and engagement.

Both Trump and President Moon are cautiously testing that proposition, their supporters say. 

South Korea has also been engaged in talks with the North to ease tensions along the heavily militarized border, to possibly field a joint team at the upcoming Asian Games in Indonesia, and to organize reunions in August for families that have been separated since the division of Korea at the end of World War II.

Lee Yoon-jee in Seoul contributed to this report.

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