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View more articles by Dagyum Ji
Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
Seoul and Washington intend to stage the currently postponed annual joint military drills “as planned,” United States Forces Korea (USFK) confirmed to NK News on Tuesday.
“As you know, the U.S. and ROK agreed to deconflict the timing of the spring exercises – Key Resolve and Foal Eagle – in order to provide the best possible conditions for a successful Olympics and Paralympics,” a USFK spokesperson who asked to remain anonymous told NK News.
“We currently intend to conduct them as planned – to include the scope and scale – as part of maintaining a foundation of military readiness. Once the ROK-U.S. Alliance solidifies the dates, we will publish that.”
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump agreed in January to delay the military exercises until mid-March to help facilitate a “peace Olympics” in the South.
USKF Commander General Vincent Brooks last Wednesday pledged to conduct the joint military drills in a report submitted to U.S.’s House Committee on Armed Services.
“We will execute the two major theater-level command post exercises and one theater-level field training exercise each year,” Brooks said, referring to computer-simulated exercises Key Resolve (KR) and Ulchi Freedom Guardian (UFG), and the Foal Eagle (FE) field training exercise.
The South Korean Ministry of National Defense (MND) on Tuesday, however, declined to confirm when Seoul and Washington would stage the drills, dates for which are typically announced in February.
“We have nothing to additionally comment on the ROK-U.S. joint military exercises,” ministry spokesperson Choi Hyun-soo told a regular news briefing. “We will make an announcement at an appropriate time.”
The defense ministry failed to include details on the military drills in a report submitted to the National Assembly’s defense committee the same day, prompting questions from press on when they would take place.
South Korean Minister of National Defense Song Young-moo on Tuesday said he and U.S. counterpart James Mattis had “agreed to maintain the policy of NCND” (Neither Confirm Nor Deny) before making an announcement on the joint military drills.
“The South Korean and the U.S. government together announced that the joint exercises have been postponed based on Olympic spirit,” Song said at a meeting of the National Assembly’s National Defense Committee.
Song denied suggestions that Seoul was reluctant to confirm the date due to fears of provoking Pyongyang, telling lawmakers that “we are not studying the pleasure of North Korea.”
South Korean and U.S. defense chiefs will announce the dates when the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympics ends on March 18, he said, and before April 1.
Pyongyang had not asked Seoul to suspend the joint military drills in exchange for the country’s participation in the PyeongChang Olympics, the defense minister said, insisting that the postponement would not affect the U.S.-ROK alliance.
South Korean unification minister on Tuesday also said that Washington and Seoul have discussed the resumption of joint military drills.
“I am aware that discussion between the South Korean and the U.S. military authorities are underway to resume the military drills,” Cho Myoung-Gyon said, saying he saw no reason to oppose them.
North Korean media has, since the postponement of the drills, called for them to be suspended entirely, recently claiming that they can “can never be compatible” with inter-Korean dialogue and improved DPRK-ROK relations.
The state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Monday released a commentary warning the Trump administration to “ponder over the catastrophic consequence” of staging the exercises.
The “hard-won atmosphere for reconciliation and cooperation between the north and the south was spoilt in a moment” when joint military drills were held in the past, the commentary added.
Tuesday’s meeting also saw the unification minister rule out the possibility of returning 12 former restaurant worker defectors to the DPRK.
North Korean media has said that reunions of families separated by the Korea War cannot take place until the women – who came to the South in 2016 – are returned.
“We can’t review the North’s request as they came to the South and settle on their own will,” Cho said on Tuesday.
Pyongyang has repeatedly insisted that the women were taken to the South against their will, blaming former South Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS) chief Lee Byung-ho for the alleged “abduction.”
Additional reporting by Chad O’Carroll
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM)