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International relations

US and South Korea put off military drills until after Olympics

Trump agrees to Moon's bid to encourage North-South dialogue

U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- The U.S. and South Korea agreed Thursday not to hold joint military exercises during the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang in an apparent attempt to defuse tensions as the South prepares for possible dialogue with North Korea.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his U.S. counterpart, Donald Trump, promised during a roughly 30-minute telephone call to do everything possible to see that the games starting in February are carried out successfully, Seoul's presidential Blue House said in a statement.

To that end, the presidents agreed to delay the Foal Eagle exercises usually held in February and March, on the understanding that North Korea will refrain from further provocations such as missile launches during the games. The Olympics run from Feb. 9 to Feb. 25, while the Paralympics begin March 9 and wrap up March 18. South Korea said in December that it had broached the idea of a delay with the U.S., and, according to the statement, Trump has now agreed.

Room to negotiate

The decision comes at a potential turning point in inter-Korean relations. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said in his New Year's address that Pyongyang is considering sending a team to the Pyeongchang games. Seoul has proposed a formal dialogue in response.

During Thursday's call, Trump voiced his hopes that talks would materialize and yield strong results. The U.S. supports Moon "100%," the president said, telling his counterpart that Washington is ready to assist as needed.

Moon pledged to work closely with the U.S. if and when a dialogue moves forward, noting that inter-Korean talks could lay the groundwork for talks between Washington and Pyongyang tackling the issue of the North's nuclear arsenal.

Yet Seoul's eagerness for dialogue is cause for concern in Washington and Tokyo. Pyongyang roundly ignored Moon last summer when he called on the North to participate in the games and reopen dialogue with the South. When the North showed signs of coming to the table this week, Moon jumped at the opportunity for progress -- despite the conditions attached.

Kim has made it clear that "creating a peaceful environment on the Korean Peninsula" is a necessary precondition for the North's participation in the games, insisting that for the U.S. to increase military pressure on Pyongyang could jeopardize the Olympics' success. The leader demanded in his address that the U.S. and South Korea halt joint drills and that the U.S. not send bombers and other strategic weapons from the South. The North is thought likely to repeat such demands in any potential talks.

Trump stated Thursday on Twitter that "talks are a good thing," even while claiming that his own willingness to "commit our total 'might' against the North" was responsible for the development. The U.S. thus seems unlikely to abandon its strategy of pressure on Pyongyang, particularly after Trump and Kim exchanged threats regarding their "nuclear buttons."

Tread with care

South Korea intends to work closely with the U.S. and other powers to simultaneously improve North-South relations and resolve the nuclear issue, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said at a meeting Thursday with officials including U.S. Army Gen. Vincent Brooks, who oversees American forces in the country.

Yet there is still concern that dialogue could drive a wedge between Seoul and its allies. Even if the North does not agree to abandon its nuclear weapons, the South could be pressed into the role of a messenger, relaying Pyongyang's excuses and demands to the rest of the world. Conservatives in the South, meanwhile, worry that dialogue could simply be a way for the Kim regime to buy time.

Washington and Tokyo are also concerned about Seoul's so-called gradual and comprehensive approach to relations with the North, wherein each step by Pyongyang toward denuclearization will be met with a concession by the South. With regional elections coming up in June, some worry Moon could extend humanitarian assistance, resume exchange programs with the North or even loosen sanctions in a show of progress.

Those sanctions have apparently begun to chafe. Flag carrier Air Koryo will run only two direct flights from Pyongyang to Beijing each week starting in January, down from three, according to source close to the airline. This is seen as a move to conserve jet fuel, which the United Nations has prohibited member states from exporting to the North.

North Korea seems to be looking to the South for a way out of this plight. Kenji Kanasugi, head of Asian affairs at the Japanese Foreign Ministry, on Thursday urged South Korea's special representative for peace on the peninsula to remain firm, calling unity among the U.S., Japan and South Korea essential.

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