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Jacob Fromer is NK News's Washington DC correspondent. He previously worked in the U.S. Senate.
Update at 16:30 EST: This article has been updated to include comments from a Pentagon spokesperson.
A senior North Korean diplomat said the country was “nearing the limitations” of its patience over planned military drills between the U.S. and South Korea next month, according to a statement put out by the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Thursday.
The official, Kwon Jong Gun, described next month’s “Vigilant Ace” air defense drills — an annual training exercise between the two allies — as an attempt to extinguish the “spark” of dialogue, and accused the Americans of deliberately seeking conflict with the North mere weeks after Washington and Pyongyang sent high-level envoys to meet face-to-face in Sweden.
“The U.S. announcement of the combined aerial exercise plan after a month since the breakdown of the Stockholm DPRK-U.S. technical negotiations amounts to a declaration of confrontation with the DPRK,” said Kwon, a “roving ambassador” who was previously the DPRK foreign ministry’s top North America official.
“The U.S. reckless military frenzy is an extremely provocative and dangerous act of throwing a wet blanket over the spark of the DPRK-U.S. dialogue on the verge of extinction and stoking the atmosphere of confrontation on the Korean peninsula and the region,” he said, according to KCNA.
“Our patience is nearing the limitations and we will never remain an onlooker to the reckless military moves of the U.S.”
Kwon’s statement also appeared to refer to recent reports that the U.S. and South Korea were considering shrinking the scale of the upcoming military exercises — perhaps as an attempt to mollify the North.
According to Kwon, those changes are unlikely to satisfy the DPRK.
“No one will believe that the changed war exercises will change their aggression nature,” he said.
Last year, the U.S. and South Korea suspended the Vigilant Ace air force drills in order to “give the diplomatic process every opportunity to continue,” a Defense Department spokesperson said at the time.
Rumors of this year’s drills being canceled, too, swirled around South Korean media in recent days.
But on Monday, Lt. Col. Dave Eastburn, a spokesperson for the Pentagon, told Voice of America that South Korea and the U.S. would be “proceeding with the Combined Flying Training Event as planned.”
Also on Monday, South Korea’s defense minister, Jeong Kyeong-doo, told the National Assembly’s defense committee that Seoul and Washington had renamed the drills and that they would be “adjusted.”
“We plan to stage [Vigilant Ace] ordinarily but in an adjusted manner, taking account of various circumstances,” he said.
He added that the goal of the drill was to “maintain combined defense readiness.”
When asked about Kwon Jong Gun’s comments, Pentagon spokesperson Eastburn told NK News that the DPRK’s “anger” would not affect the Defense Department’s decisions about military exercises, and added that the exercises would still leave room for U.S. diplomats to do their jobs and talk to the North.
“We don’t scale or conduct our exercises based off North Korea’s anger,” he said.
“Our exercises, like the combined air exercise you’re asking about, ensure readiness and enhance interoperability between the U.S. and South Korea while allowing the diplomats the space they need to have open conversations with North Korea.”
Kwon Jong Gun’s statement and the upcoming U.S.-South Korea military drills are the latest sources of tension in the rocky weeks since diplomatic talks broke down in Stockholm.
The two sides have traded dueling narratives about what went wrong in the talks and have been unable to agree on whether they will meet again.
Last week, North Korea conducted its first weapons test since the talks broke down.
Kwon on Thursday described the current moment as a “sensitive time.”
“The U.S. intention to openly hold war exercise against the DPRK at a sensitive time when the whole world is concerned about the prospect of the DPRK-U.S. relations clearly proves again its nature as the chieftain harassing world peace and security and the hegemonic state regarding the recourse to military strength as a cure-for-all in settling issues,” he said.
“We have already emphasized more than once that the planned joint military exercise can block the DPRK-U.S. relations from advancing and compel us to reconsider the crucial measures we have already taken.”
Featured image: U.S. Air Force