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NK-US military tensions could resurface in 2019: report

Military tensions between North Korea and the US could temporarily rise if the deadlock in denuclearization talks continues until August next year, according to a report from a think tank released Wednesday.

US President Donald Trump could resume South Korea-US joint military exercises if denuclearization talks continue to stall in the first half of next year, which could lead Pyongyang to conduct a long-range missile test, according to the Asan Institute for Policy Studies research titled “Korea’s Choice.”

“The US is highly likely to delay the Key Resolve exercises scheduled for March despite the deadlock in denuclearization talks because continuing momentum for dialogue with the North works in favor of Trump,” wrote Shin Beom-chul, a senior fellow at AIPS.

Trump suspended the allies’ joint military exercises as a goodwill gesture following his June 12 summit in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who promised to work toward “complete denuclearization” in return for security guarantees from the US.

But if the current deadlock continues through June or July next year, Shin said, Trump may resume Ulchi Freedom Guardian, an annual large-scale South Korea-US military exercise held in August.

“(The resumption) will be a good chance for North Korea to prove whether it has mastered missile re-entry technology through a long-range missile test (to gain leverage in negotiations with the US),” he stated in the report on international affairs outlook for 2019.

The standoff between Pyongyang and Washington can be expected to continue next year, according to the report, with neither a breakdown in dialogue nor significant progress in the denuclearization talks.

(Asan Institute for Policy Studies)
(Asan Institute for Policy Studies)
Such a prolonged impasse could force Seoul into a “moment of choice,” as it could be pressured to pick sides between Washington and Pyongyang, said the report.

North Korea will likely ask South Korea to accelerate inter-Korean cooperation and demand sanctions relief from the US, while the US is expected to step up sanctions on North Korea and push South Korea to join its pressure campaign and control the pace of inter-Korean developments, according to the report.

South Korea and the US’ ongoing negotiations for the Special Measures Agreement, which stipulates how the allies are to share the costs of stationing 28,000 US troops in South Korea, could further put the alliance to the test.

“In case the ongoing negotiations are not completed by March or April, we cannot rule out the possibility of partial reduction of US troops in South Korea,” said James Kim, the director of AIPS in Washington.

“The possibility is low, but President Trump has talked about it and it is an important issue to his support base. Also, if a partial withdrawal of the troops could be used as a bargaining chip in negotiations with North Korea, it could be killing two birds with one stone.”

South Korea and the US aimed to strike a deal within this year, but failed due to a wide gap in the total amount of money Seoul has to pay. Trump is reported to demand South Korea pay as much as double the current amount -- about 960 billion won ($849 million) -- per year. 

Amid continued strategic competition between the US and China for influence in Northeast Asia, there is also a chance the two superpowers could use the North Korean nuclear issue to gain leverage over each other in their negotiations, according to the report.