Update at 1905 KST: this article has been updated to include mention of a foreign ministry statement issued on Sunday.
South Korea and the U.S. have decided to postpone a series of joint air combat military drills scheduled to take place this month, the two countries’ defense ministers said on Sunday, in a decision intended to facilitate long-stalled negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear program.
In a move announced following a series of meetings in Bangkok, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, speaking alongside his South Korean counterpart Jeong Kyeong-doo, denied the decision represented a “concession” to North Korea.
“We have made this decision as an act of goodwill to contribute to an environment conducive to diplomacy and the advancement of peace,” Esper told reporters on the sidelines of the 6th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus in comments carried by multiple outlets.
“I see this as a good-faith effort by the United States and the Republic of Korea to enable peace … to facilitate a political agreement, a deal if you will, that leads to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” he added.
Urging Pyongyang to return to dialogue with Washington “without precondition or hesitation,” the U.S. Secretary of Defense said North Korea should “demonstrate the same goodwill.”
The allies had originally planned the so-called “Combined Flying Training Event” — intended as a scaled-down version of the previously-cancelled “Vigilant Ace” drill — to begin later this month.
North Korea had strongly protested the plans, with a statement by the country’s top State Affairs Commission on Wednesday warning the situation on the peninsula stood to worsen should they go ahead and describing the exercise as a “betrayal.”
A subsequent statement by top official Kim Yong Chol, too, said the country would “answer with shocking punishment” should “hostile provocations” continue.
Esper, currently in Asia for a series of meetings with regional counterparts, on Friday hinted that the drills might be adjusted in order to facilitate diplomacy with the North.
“We always have to remain flexible in terms of how we support our diplomats to ensure that we do not close any doors that may allow forward progress on the diplomatic front,” he said.
In a move likely intended as a response to the upcoming drills, DPRK leader Kim Jong Un was on Saturday reported to have overseen a flight contest by the country’s Korean People’s Army Air and Anti-Air Force.
Diplomacy between North Korea and the U.S. has remained in a state of limbo since last month’s working-level talks in in Stockholm between the two countries fell apart, with Pyongyang in recent weeks issuing frequent reminders that an end of year deadline for a deal, issued by leader Kim Jong Un in April, is drawing closer.
“There are two big factors at play here,” Mintaro Oba, a former State Department official working on North Korea, told NK News in response to news of the drills’ suspension.
“First, President Trump remains very personally invested in continuing the diplomatic process with North Korea, especially ahead of the next U.S. election,” he continued.
“Second, North Korea always seeks to test the boundaries of what is accepted by the United States, and this postponement will only serve to confirm that this is a prime moment to set new precedents by calling America’s bluff on everything from exercises to missile launches.”
Asked whether he believed the move represented a “concession” to the North, Oba said the decision served an important means for the U.S. to restore momentum to diplomacy between the two countries.
“It’s easy to call something uncomfortable a concession from the comfort of an armchair, without personal accountability for the results of a negotiation,” he said. “But if you believe in attempting diplomacy, you need to put the discomfort in appropriate perspective.”
“This is a temporary gesture, not a permanent concession. The United States and South Korea will always find ways to maintain deterrence and readiness. But the opportunities for diplomacy are limited.”
Meanwhile, North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) issued a statement later on Sunday condemning a recent U.S. vote in favor of a North Korea human rights at the United Nations as part of a broader “hostile policy” against the country.
The statement, issued by an unnamed spokesperson for the ministry, condemned the vote as “political provocation” against the DPRK and proof that Washington had not given up its “hollow dream to bring down our system.”
“Even if the North-U.S. talks reopen in the future, the nuclear issue would never be discussed before the issue of withdrawing the U.S. hostile policy to improve relations with us be brought up in the agenda for dialogue,” the statement read.
Additional reporting by Jeongmin Kim
Featured image: Secretary of Defense Mark Esper’s Twitter