With South Korea seeking to postpone combined military exercises until after the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, attention is now on whether the proposal can gain approval from the US and help the Moon Jae-in administration’s engagement initiative with North Korea.
In an interview with NBC News on Tuesday, President Moon Jae in said the upcoming Key Resolve exercise could be pushed back if Pyongyang shows willingness to pause its nuclear and missile tests before the Winter Games kick off in February.
“If North Korea stops its provocations leading up to the PyeongChang Olympics, it will greatly help in holding a safe Olympics,” he said. “Also, it will help in creating conducive atmosphere toward inter-Korean as well as US-North Korean dialogue.”
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, however, said he was not aware of any plans to postpone the “long-standing, scheduled and regular” exercises between Washington and Seoul.
“They’re carried out on a scheduled basis. We announce them in advance. There’s nothing surprising about them, and I’m not aware of any plans to change what is scheduled,” Tillerson said at a joint news conference with Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland on Tuesday in Ottawa.
Asked about Tillerson’s comments, Cheong Wa Dae said Wednesday that Tillerson is not a “direct point of contact” in discussing the exercise planning, hinting that the proposal might have been discussed between Moon’s security adviser Chung Eui-yong and his US counterpart H.R. McMaster.
The Winter Olympics are to take place from Feb. 9-25, with the Paralympic Games scheduled from March 9-18. This year’s Key Resolve ran from March 13-24. The military has not yet announced the timeline for the 2018 exercises.
North Korea has long demanded South Korea and the US halt joint military drills, although the allies insist they are defensive in nature. The 2017 Key Resolve exercise was staged at the largest-ever scale, involving about 300,000 troops and US strategic assets.
Cheong Wa Dae warned that Moon’s proposal would be “surely affected” if North Korea carries out further missile and nuclear tests. The North’s latest provocations took place on Nov. 29, when it fired off the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile.
“Of course, (our proposal and North Korea’s provocations) will be linked,” a Cheong Wa Dae official told reporters under the customary condition of anonymity on Wednesday. “We have to make decisions when time comes, but it will surely be affected.”
The official added that the government is waiting for a response from the US, noting that it has been “a while” for Seoul to deliver its proposal to Washington and the two sides have been discussing the matter “quite a lot.”
South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense said the two countries’ militaries are closely consulting on whether to postpone the annual drill. The Combined Forces Command, the US-led organization that oversees the exercise with South Korea’s Joint Chief of Staff, echoed the comments.
Calls for postponing the annual exercise emerged from South Korea, with the engagement-seeking Moon administration viewing the Olympics as an opportunity to defuse cross-border tensions and resume bilateral talks on denuclearization.
In September, the president’s special adviser Moon Chung-in said South Korea and the US should consider the “temporary suspension” of their joint military exercises in exchange for North Korea’s freeze on nuclear activities.
His remark came in light of China’s “freeze-for-freeze” as a basis for bilateral talks to resolve the current nuclear standoff. Under the idea, North Korea would freeze its nuclear weapons program in return for the US and South Korea halting their military exercises around the Korean Peninsula.
When asked about whether the government has accepted the “freeze-to-freeze” proposal, Cheong Wa Dae denied the notion, saying the suspension proposal is only limited to the period of PyeongChang Olympics.
“That doesn’t mean we would accept the idea of freeze-to-freeze,” said the Cheong Wa Dae official. “Let me make sure. Our suspension is only applied to the joint military exercise during the PyeongChang Winter Olympics and Paralympic Games.”
Ulchi Freedom Guardian and Key Resolve comprise the two main joint drills between South Korea and the US, performed annually to reinforce their defense posture against the North. The militaries usually begin discussions months before an exercise kicks off.
By Yeo Jun-suk (email@example.com)