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South Korea, US still in talks over drills: Defense Ministry

South Korean soldiers take part in the Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise in Yongin, Gyeonggi Province, Aug. 29, 2017. (Reuters-Yonhap)
South Korean soldiers take part in the Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise in Yongin, Gyeonggi Province, Aug. 29, 2017. (Reuters-Yonhap)
South Korea and the US are still discussing the joint military exercises set for later this month, the Ministry of National Defense said Monday, amid growing speculation they could skip the drills to make room for South and North Korea to rebuild strained ties.

On Sunday, Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, issued a statement warning Seoul against the exercises, a week after the two Koreas reopened communications lines. A year ago, Pyongyang cut them and demolished an inter-Korean liaison office.

“We have no comment on that. Drills will be a joint decision between South Korea and the US,” Defense Ministry spokesperson Boo Seung-chan said.

The US Department of Defense echoed a similar sentiment, saying the two allies will decide on their own whether to hold the drills, and there was nothing to comment regarding Kim’s statement, where she said she would keep a close eye on the South Korean government.

Seoul’s Unification Ministry said it will work to reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula and remain flexible in its approach to Pyongyang. The ministry is seen as reinforcing its position that the drills be put on hold to engage North Korea.

The unification minister has asked Pyongyang to discuss preparing to open a virtual meeting and approved fresh humanitarian exchanges with the North. Meanwhile a senior Unification Ministry official has openly proposed pushing back the drills to revive momentum for diplomacy.

But the summertime drills are expected to take place, though Seoul and Washington could scale them down because of the pandemic, according to officials familiar with the matter. They said the drills will run from Aug. 16 to 26, after a four-day pre-training session the previous week. Springtime drills open in March.

The exercises, which aim to rein in aggression from North Korea, have recently provided opportunities for South Korea to demonstrate its readiness to take over wartime operational control from the US, which has maintained the responsibility since the 1950-53 Korean War.

Seoul and Washington, which will take part in computer-based war games rather than all-out field exercises, have been working to complete the handover. But the recent drills -- either skipped or reduced by the pandemic -- have fallen short of testing such readiness.

President Moon Jae-in promised to retake the command before he leaves office in May next year, but chances are seen as slim.

By Choi Si-young (siyoungchoi@heraldcorp.com)
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