Expectations are growing over the upcoming meeting between the defense chiefs of South Korea and the United States, with the allies seeking to use an Olympic detente to foster a thaw in inter-Korean relations and North Korea’s denuclearization.
But the challenge looms large, as a standoff appears to persist between Washington and Pyongyang. While the North is preparing for a military parade a day before the opening of the PyeongChang Olympics on Feb. 9, reports have emerged that US strategic bombers held a joint military drill with Japan near the Korean Peninsula.
South Korea’s Defense Minister Song Young-moo and his US counterpart Jim Mattis will hold a meeting Friday in Hawaii, the Defense Ministry said Thursday, in a bid to translate the Olympic detente into momentum to ease cross-border tension and resolve North Korea’s nuclear program.
“The agenda of the meeting will be how to ensure the safety of the Olympics,” said the Defense Ministry’s spokesperson Choi Hyun-soo, adding other bilateral issues would be discussed, such as the US’ transfer of wartime operational control to South Korea.
|US Defense Minister James Mattis (left) and South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo shake hands at the Joint Security Area on the Demilitarized Zone in the border village of Panmunjom in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, Friday. Yonhap|
Topping the agenda will be when to resume the annual Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises and whether to carry out the drills on a scale similar to that of last year. Taking place from March 1 to April 30, last year’s exercises were thought to be the largest-ever.
The ministry’s spokesperson said the exercises would resume after the Paralympic Games end on March 18, but declined to discuss the specific timeline. Speculation is rampant that they would resume in early April on a similar scale to last year.
Following the meeting with Mattis in Hawaii, Song will head to Southeast Asia to meet with his counterparts in Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia from Sunday to Feb. 3.
Song will deliver a keynote speech at the Fullerton Forum, a multilateral defense talk held in Singapore, the Defense Ministry said.
“It is a part of the government’s ‘New Southern Policy,” the ministry said. “The move is designed to enhance international cooperation for North Korea’s denuclearization and partnership with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.”
The developments came amid reports that US strategic bombers deployed to Guam conducted a joint exercise with Japan near the Korean Peninsula, with signs growing that North Korea is preparing for a massive military parade on the eve of the opening of the PyeongChang Olympics.
According to the report by Japanese broadcaster NHK, two B-52H Stratofortress and two B-1 Lancers conducted a joint military drill on waters near the peninsula, along with four F-15s from the Japan Air Self-Defense Force.
North Korea, for its part, appears to be accelerating efforts to mark its Army’s Foundation Day with a massive military parade in Pyongyang, where signs of mobilizing troops and military equipment continue to grow.
Such indications have raised speculation over whether the reclusive regime would demonstrate its military prowess by unveiling newly developed ballistic missiles -- such as the Pukguksong-3, submarine-based ballistic missile, or the Hwasong-13 intercontinental ballistic missile.
Meanwhile, North Korea has reiterated its demand for the complete suspension of the allies’ joint military exercises and the US’ deployment of strategic assets, denouncing it as a “fundamental obstacle” to improving inter-Korean ties.
In an announcement addressed to “all Koreans at home and abroad” Thursday, the reclusive state’s government and party officials urged South Korea to make a “breakthrough” for unification without the help of other countries, the North’s state media said.
“Let all Koreans at home and abroad turn out to decisively oppose and reject all hostile acts and war moves aggravating the situation and wrecking peace,” the statement said. “Let us turn out as one in the nationwide drive to improve the north-south relations and make a breakthrough for independent reunification.”