SEOUL/PAJU, SOUTH KOREA – The United States and South Korea on Tuesday wrapped up military drills at the center of soaring tensions with North Korea, as Pyongyang ignored a new overture over a flagship joint industrial zone.
The two-month-long “Foal Eagle” air, ground and naval field training exercise — which involved more than 10,000 U.S. troops along with a far higher number of South Korean personnel — had infuriated Pyongyang.
“The drill is over but the South Korean and U.S. militaries will continue to watch out for potential provocations by the North, including a missile launch,” Seoul’s Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min Seok told reporters.
Analysts said the exercises conclusion could allow for tensions to ease.
“With the military drills over, at least we can worry less about any accidental clash developing into a full-scale war,” said Paik Hak Soon, a North Korea expert at the Sejong Institute, a think tank in Seoul.
He said a planned summit in Washington on May 7 between the U.S. President Barack Obama and South Korean leader Park Geun Hye — who took office in February — could be more significant in setting the tone for inter-Korean relations.
“If the North finds the outcome of the summit unsatisfying or unacceptable, that means we would have to live in constant fear of another military provocation near the border,” Paik said.
The North is still maintaining a number of missiles and missile launchers that were recently moved to its east coast in apparent preparation for a launch, said Kim, the Defense Ministry spokesman.
The Korean Peninsula has been in a state of heightened military tension since the North carried out its third nuclear test in February.
Relations between the two Koreas have been further soured by a row over the Kaesong factory park inside the North that was once a rare symbol of inter-Korea cooperation.
Most South Koreans who had remained at the industrial park had returned home by early Tuesday morning, officials said, leaving a final seven behind to negotiate unpaid wages for North Korean workers.
The Unification Ministry in Seoul said 43 South Koreans began departing from Kaesong late Monday night and arrived in the South just past midnight after officials arranged vehicles to carry them across the border.
But it wasn’t immediately known when the wage negotiations would take place and the remaining seven South Koreans would return home.
Kurt Campbell, the former top U.S. diplomat for Asia, told reporters at a forum in Seoul that there was substantial concern with the way Pyongyang has treated what was supposed to be a venue to improve inter-Korean relations.
But he said what has happened at Kaesong wasn’t a watershed moment like the shelling of a frontline South Korean island or the sinking of a South Korean warship, two attacks that killed 50 South Koreans in 2010. Pyongyang denies involvement in the sinking.
The North did not respond to a plea by South Korean businessmen to visit Kaesong on Tuesday for talks aimed at averting its permanent closure, according to Seoul, despite hopes of an easing of tensions after the drills ended.
Pyongyang regularly denounces joint U.S.-South Korean exercises as a rehearsal for invasion, but Seoul and Washington have insisted the recent maneuvers were defensive in nature.
Incensed by fresh U.N. sanctions and the joint South Korea-U.S. military exercises, the North has spent weeks issuing blistering threats of missile strikes and war.
The Foal Eagle exercises “are the main factor of pushing the situation on the Korean Peninsula to the brink of a nuclear war,” the newspaper of the North’s Communist Party, the Rodong Sinmun, said Monday.
“The U.S. and South Korean warmongers should bear in mind that they will not be able to escape a miserable doom if they ignite a nuclear war against the DPRK in the end,” it added.
But after weeks of apocalyptic threats, the North’s state media has in recent days also reported on leader Kim Jong Un’s visits to a soccer match and a health complex with his wife, in what was seen as a sign of easing tensions.
Pyongyang has regularly accused the United States of preparing to launch a nuclear strike on its territory, and reacted furiously to the use of nuclear-capable B-52s and B-2 stealth bombers in the joint South-U.S. drills.
“This year’s exercise was far more aggressive and public in nature than previous drills,” Lee Jae Joung, who served as the South’s unification minister from 2006 to 2008, said in a radio interview.
“That prompted the North to take a more aggressive stance in turn, sparking the whole cycle of escalating tensions,” Lee added.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported Sunday that North Korea appeared to be preparing for a major live-fire military exercise of its own involving artillery units and air force jets.