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The USS Ronald Reagan could take part in U.S.-South Korean drills following the Winter Paralympic games.
International relations

US smells North Korean ploy to drive wedge into Seoul ties

A pause in joint drills could give Washington a military advantage

TSUYOSHI NAGASAWA and SOTARO SUZUKI, Nikkei staff writers | North Korea

WASHINGTON/SEOUL -- The U.S. is alarmed by North Korea's recent agreement to hold high-level talks with South Korea, seeing the move as an attempt at driving a wedge into its alliance with Seoul.

Washington plans to continue exerting maximum pressure on Pyongyang through sanctions and military displays, confident that this policy is working.

In a speech on New Year's Day, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said he was prepared to send athletes to the Winter Olympics in South Korea next month. Seoul immediately sprang into action, proposing the following day that the two sides meet at the truce village of Panmunjom. Ri Son Gwon, head of the North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, accepted just three days later on Friday in a message to South Korean Minister of Unification Cho Myoung-gyon.

The meeting will take place on Tuesday at the Peace House, a facility on the South Korean side of the de facto border between the Koreas, in accordance with Seoul's demands. Both Ri and Cho are expected to attend.

Getting results

South Korean President Moon Jae-in had repeatedly argued that greater international pressure would eventually push Pyongyang to seek a dialogue with Seoul. The planned talks, the first since Moon took office last May, validated his claims.

"The fact that Kim Jong Un's people were willing to pick up the phone and call [South Korea] is a strong indication that our maximum pressure campaign is working," U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert told reporters on Thursday.

She also warned South Korea against discussing the nuclear issue or sanctions with the North. "Our understanding is that these talks ... will be limited to conversations about the Olympics and perhaps some other domestic matters," she said.

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, meanwhile, questioned Kim's intentions, saying he didn't know whether the talks are a "one-off from him or a real olive branch."

Japan also worries that the talks could alleviate pressure on North Korea. Kenji Kanasugi, head of the Japanese foreign ministry's Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, will travel to South Korea on Monday to reaffirm Tokyo's commitment to tougher measures against the North.

The upcoming inter-Korean dialogue "is similar to efforts made in the past," Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters Friday, expressing little hope that the talks would resolve the issue of the North's nuclear and missile programs.

Drills after Olympics

The U.S. announced Thursday that it will postpone its joint military drills with South Korea previously scheduled during the upcoming Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and Paralympic games. The decision was ostensibly made for security reasons -- a message that Washington is not easing its stance on the North. Mattis said the drills will be held after the Paralympics in March.

In addition to preventing a military clash during the games, the delay should also buy the U.S. military some time in order to maximize pressure on North Korea. The USS Ronald Reagan will still be undergoing routine maintenance during the Olympic and Paralympic games. But the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier would be able to participate if the drills occur after the Paralympics.

The U.S. could also schedule both the USS Theodore Roosevelt, currently deployed in the Middle East, and its replacement to pass by the Korean Peninsula during the drills. This could place three aircraft carriers in the vicinity of North Korea and place significant pressure on the country, like the U.S. did last fall.

Guessing game

Meanwhile, experts have begun weighing in on what North Korea might demand on Tuesday. The isolated country could ask that South Korea not only postpone joint drills with the U.S. but end them altogether, according to Hong Kwan-hee, a professor at the Korea University in Seoul. Hong also said the North will push hard to resume operations of the Kaesong industrial complex and the Mount Kumgang resort, two joint economic projects with South Korea.

North Korea thinks negotiating with the Trump administration will be difficult, so it is now focusing on improving ties with the South and preventing further sanctions, said Hong Min of the South's Korea Institute for National Unification. 

While South Korea cannot decide to end the drills on its own, it can reopen Kaesong and Mount Kumgang, which were shut down as part of unilateral sanctions on North Korea. Pyongyang is banking on the projects to bolster its economy, which has been hit hard by sanctions.

Resuming these projects would blow a hole in the international sanctions regimen. Seoul would be playing into Pyongyang's hands if it tries to demonstrate a thaw in their relationship at the Olympics, or if it hesitates to conduct military drills with the U.S. In a call with Moon on Thursday, U.S. President Donald Trump stressed they must not repeat the mistakes of the past.

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