As the US snubbed the nascent talks between North and South Korea as a possible attempt by Kim Jong-un to “drive a wedge” between allies, the South’s president has convinced Washington to delay joint drills to ease tensions.
Moon Jae-in made the request to delay the military maneuvers in a phone conversation with his US counterpart Donald Trump. “I believe it would greatly help ensure the success of the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games if you could express an intention to delay joint South Korea-US military exercises during the Olympics in case the North does not make any more provocations,” Moon pleaded with Trump, as quoted by the South Korean presidential office via Yonhap.
The agreement to reschedule the drills comes at a time when the two Koreas reactivated a diplomatic hotline that’s been silent for nearly two years. On Friday, they used the channel to schedule a high-level meeting for Tuesday. The North’s participation at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics will be central to the discussions, and Seoul is optimistic this could open the way for wider rapprochement. “We will closely consult with the United States in the process of South-North Korea dialogue and we are confident that South-North Korea dialogue helps create an atmosphere for dialogue between the US and North Korea on resolving the North Korean nuclear issue,” Moon was quoted as saying by his office Friday.
Washington, though, has dismissed the talks as “limited,” and even said Kim could use it as an opportunity to “drive a wedge” between allies. “Our understanding is that these talks will be limited. These talks will be limited to conversations about the Olympics and perhaps some other domestic matters… Not beyond that,” said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert at a Thursday press briefing. She then reiterated Washington’s commitment to its campaign of “maximum pressure” on North Korea.
Earlier on Tuesday, she said, “We aren’t going to necessarily believe that Kim Jong-un is sincere and is credible in his talks.” She added that “Kim Jong-un may be trying to drive a wedge of some sort between the two nations, between our nation and the Republic of Korea.”
Trump, meanwhile, claimed credit for the budding intra-Korean talks, tweeting, “Does anybody really believe that talks and dialogue would be going on between North and South Korea right now if I wasn’t firm, strong and willing to commit our total ‘might’ against the North. Fools, but talks are a good thing!”
In the midst of the positive developments emanating from the Korean peninsula, the commanding general of the US Forces Korea (USFK) warned that American forces in South Korea must remain combat-ready. “We can be generally pleased by the recent overtures that happened. But we must keep our expectations at the appropriate level,” Gen. Vincent K. Brooks said in Seoul Thursday, Yonhap reports. It’s important to maintain an “ironclad and razor sharp” alliance with South Korea and foster joint combat readiness if the talks lead to a “negative outcome, not a positive outcome,” Brooks said.
North Korea has long denounced the annual US-South Korean military exercises as a prelude to an invasion and a major obstacle to peace on the peninsula. Tensions between Washington and Pyongyang reached unprecedented levels last year; and as the North continued to pursue its missile and nuclear programs, Washington said all options, including a military solution, are on the table to tame North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.