A former unification minister called for a prompt decision from the Moon Jae-in government on whether to hold joint military drills with the US this spring, saying the resolution of this issue would be an important turning point in inter-Korean relations.
“North Korea is shameless enough to raise questions about the South’s strategic assets and military training while advancing its own nuclear weapons and missiles. But the ball is in the South’s court now,” Jeong Se-hyun, deputy chair of the presidential National Unification Advisory Council, said in a recent interview with The Herald Business, a Korean-language sister paper of The Korea Herald.
“Given that the drills are likely to start around March, the final decision should come no later than early February.”
Seoul and Washington have held large-scale military drills twice a year, but in recent years they have been scaled down to appease Pyeongyang. Even though the two allies have stressed the “defensive nature” of the training, the North has demanded an end to the drills, saying they hinder inter-Korean reconciliation.
In his ongoing push for dialogue with the North, President Moon hinted last week that the South was open to discussions concerning the combined exercises with the US, urging the North to return to the negotiating table as soon as possible.
“The president was saying if the North hopes to end the joint drills, it should come up with compromises on easing military tensions,” said Jeong, who is considered one of the top security advisers to Moon and who served as unification minister during the liberal Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations.
He predicted that the North was highly likely to respond to the South’s offer on military talks, saying that the North, in a hurry to carry out its urgent five-year economic development plans, has no time and resources to deal with the joint drills and related security tensions.
“The resumption of the military talks can lead to economic talks, high-level talks and then summit talks,” Jeong added.
He also expressed expectations about North Korea policy under the Biden administration, calling the recent remarks by Antony Blinken, Biden’s nominee for secretary state, who said if confirmed he intended to “review the entire approach and policy toward North Korea,” a positive signal.
“On the surface, he seems to be saying he intends to review the policy under the Trump administration. But I think he is admitting the US has failed to stop the North’s nuclear programs. It is a welcoming signal that the US is reflecting on its own North Korea policy overall,” he said.
Noting that it could take at least six months for the Biden administration to set up its North Korea team, Jeong highlighted Moon’s active mediating role in US-North diplomacy as he enters his final year in office in May.
“Like we did in the past, we should not just wait until the US says something. We have to set up our own direction and propose the approach to the US,” he said. “If the Moon administration does nothing during the six months, its remaining six months will be useless as well.”
By Lee Ji-yoon (firstname.lastname@example.org