Posted : 2018-02-13 16:40
Updated : 2018-02-13 23:08

Moon in dilemma over joint drills

High-level North Korean delegation sits at a table during their meeting with President Moon Jae-in at Cheong Wa Dae, Saturday. / Yonhap

By Lee Min-hyung

President Moon Jae-in is facing a growing dilemma over South Korea's planned military exercises with the United States, with North Korea offering a rare gesture for warmer inter-Korean relations.

On Monday, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, in a meeting with its highest-ranking delegation which returned to Pyongyang Sunday after ending their three-day trip to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, ordered the regime to elevate the ongoing peaceful bilateral relationship with the South,.

The uncommon sign for reconciliation is raising the likelihood for a possible inter-Korean summit this year.

This is in line with President Moon's North Korean policy under which he has underlined the need for holding enough dialogue to stop Pyongyang's provocative military threats.

However, the South Korean government is likely to face a bumpy road ahead on the matter, as Seoul and Washington plan to resume their annual joint military exercise sometime in April. They delayed the drills - which normally take place around late February to early March - until after the Winter Olympics.

The South Korea-U.S. drills have for years drawn a strong backlash from North Korea. The Pentagon has in recent weeks reaffirmed its willingness to stage the drills right after the closing of the PyeongChang Paralympics in mid-March.

But South Korea's defense ministry has maintained a low-key posture on the matter without elaborating on a detailed schedule for the joint drills.

"Specific timelines for the joint military exercise are still under review by both countries," defense ministry spokeswoman Choi Hyun-soo said in a media briefing, Tuesday. "We will make the details public in a timely manner."

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, however, hinted Sunday at a softening of the country's hard-line North Korean policy.

After ending his three-day visit to Seoul and PyeongChang, he was quoted as saying in an airplane that the country would push for "maximum pressure and engagement at the same time."

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also noted that the country is ready to hold talks with the North.

"It is really up to the North Koreans to decide when they are ready to engage with us in a sincere and meaningful way," he said in a local news conference, Monday.

With the prevailing mood for inter-Korean reconciliation, Rep. Kim Kyung-hyup of the Democratic Party of Korea said the North should stop its nuclear and missile threats.

"If the North wants to demand we suspend the Seoul-Washington joint drill, the regime should show willingness for a nuclear freeze beforehand," he said in a recent radio interview.

Seoul should then discuss details with Washington over whether to downsize the scale of the exercise, according to the lawmaker.

"To some extent, we need to shift the focus of the combat-centric drill into a defense-driven one, as the North has been extremely sensitive to exercises aimed at attacking the regime," he said.

Cheong Wa Dae has yet to unveil details over how to handle the issue.

In a meeting with Latvia President Raimonds Vejonis on Tuesday, Moon said the U.S. has also expressed its will to hold dialogue with the North, according to the presidential office.

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