Easing tension: South Korea, US to end biggest joint military exercises

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Published: March 3, 2019 8:45:40 AM

South Korea’s Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo and U.S. Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan have agreed to end two of the biggest yearly joint military drills conducted in South Korea.

South Korea’s defense ministry confirmed the end of the joint exercises

South Korea’s Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo and U.S. Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan have agreed to end two of the biggest yearly joint military drills conducted in South Korea. The Pentagon said in a statement that both sides decided to conclude the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle series of the exercises. The decision “reflected our desire to reduce tension and support our diplomatic efforts to achieve complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a final, fully verified manner.”

South Korea’s defense ministry confirmed the end of the joint exercises, saying the discussion was based on a bilateral agreement on pursuing “permanent peace on the Korean peninsula.” North Korea has been vocal in opposing the two large-scale exercises, calling them “U.S. practice to invade North Korea” and “simulations for war.”

Shanahan told Bloomberg News in an interview that the Defense Department has found the “right mix of readiness exercises” to keep U.S. forces prepared, adding that the smaller joint exercises are set to continue “per plan.”

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U.S. Forces Korea acknowledged the cancellation of Vigilant Ace, another joint military drill planned for December 2018, had caused a “ degradation to the readiness” of forces.

‘Escalating Power’

In North Korea’s most recent commentary on the joint drills, it slammed South Korea for “escalating military power with outside forces,” calling the exercises an action that “brings tension” in the area amid ongoing peace talks.

The latest cancellation of joint exercises may act as an olive branch to North Korea leader Kim Jong Un after his two-day summit in Hanoi with President Donald Trump collapsed Thursday amid disagreement over sanctions relief and conflicting accounts of Pyongyang’s demands.

Kim pledged to meet Trump again in a statement released Friday through North Korea’s state-run news agency KCNA in a report that offered a more optimistic outlook than the regime’s top diplomats gave in a rare news conference hours earlier. Kim expressed appreciation for Trump’s “active efforts toward results” and called the summit talks “productive.”

Earlier, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho had disputed Trump’s claim that Kim had demanded a complete removal of economic sanctions — which the U.S. president said led him to break off talks. Another top regime diplomat signaled a hardening stance, telling reporters Kim may have “lost the will” to make a deal on his country’s nuclear program.

‘Missed Opportunity’

North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui told reporters the “U.S. not accepting our proposal is missing an opportunity that comes once in a thousand years.” The KCNA report, however, called the efforts to reduce tensions of “great significance.”

Kim has limited options as international sanctions choke North Korea’s faltering economy, and securing some measure of economic support from China would likely be crucial for the regime. The North Korean leader in January made a similar threat to shift toward a “new path” if Trump didn’t lift sanctions and then proceeded to meet the U.S. president.

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Trump ended the summit early and said Kim “wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety, and we couldn’t do that.” In exchange, Trump said the North Korean leader had offered to dismantle his nation’s main nuclear facility at Yongbyon.

Yongbyon is a sprawling complex with dozens of buildings and reactors including plutonium reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities and research centers. It is a crown jewel of the North’s nuclear capabilities.

In comments later to reporters traveling with U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, a senior State Department official said the North Koreans were unwilling to impose a complete freeze on their weapons program.

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