Seoul and Washington are reportedly considering delaying annual joint military exercises until after the Winter Olympics in a bid to stave off provocative actions by North Korea during the Pyeongchang Games in South Korea.
Media reports said the South had asked for the delay in the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises until after the Paralympics wrap up on March 18. The Financial Times, citing people familiar with the situation, said the U.S. was likely to accept the request.
Asked about the report, a spokesman for the U.S. military’s Pacific Command, said talks about the schedule for the exercise were presently being conducted.
“The ROK-U.S. Alliance continues to discuss the way ahead on the exercises Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, to include the appropriate timing,” Pacific Command spokesman Cmdr. Dave Benham told The Japan Times on Tuesday. “The alliance will issue a statement at the appropriate time.”
On Monday, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff refused to confirm or deny the reports.
“Nothing has been decided so far as you know,” the Yonhap news agency quoted JCS spokesman Col. Roh Jae-cheon as saying. However, a spokesman for the presidential Blue House had said last month that suspending or postponing the drills was a possibility.
The Olympics are to take place from Feb. 9-25, with the Paralympic Games scheduled from March 9-18. This year’s Key Resolve, a computer-simulated command-and-control exercise, ran from March 13-24 while Foal Eagle, which involved more than 317,000 troops from the allies as well as advanced stealth fighters and the USS Carl Vinson nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, lasted eight weeks from March 1.
The military has yet to announce the timeline for the 2018 exercise.
Calls for postponing the annual exercises reportedly emerged from the South Korean side, with the administration of President Moon Jae-in viewing the Olympics as a chance to defuse tensions and to take steps toward resuming bilateral denuclearization talks.
North Korea regularly lambastes the joint exercises, which are held each spring, calling them a rehearsal for invasion. The planning for next year’s exercises also comes as concerns grow in regional capitals that the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump may be planning possible military action against North Korea after its latest test of a long-range missile believed capable of striking much of the United States.
Earlier this month, White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster ominously noted that the odds of war with North Korea were “increasing every day.”
“There are ways to address this problem short of armed conflict, but it is a race because he’s getting closer and closer, and there’s not much time left,” McMaster said in reference to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Pyongyang has made no secret of its fears that the large-scale military drills could be used to mask the accumulation of assets in the region for a military strike against the Kim regime.
Ahead of last year’s exercises, North Korean state media vowed “merciless ultra-precision strikes” if the allies made any move against the nuclear-armed country.
Daniel Pinkston, an East Asia expert at Troy University in Seoul, said that a slight delay in the exercises’ timing was “pushing up against the clock,” but was still doable.
More concerning for Pinkston was the purpose of the delay.
“In the near-term, the North Koreans need to be reassured that (the exercises) are only defensive exercises and that there is absolutely no intent to launch preventive strikes or preventive war,” he said. “If the North truly believes that (the drills) will not be exercises but real armed attacks against North Korea, then Pyongyang has a strong incentive to strike first when the Korean People’s Army is at peak readiness — in January or February, during their training.”
Other regional security experts said any postponement of the drills would have little effect in bringing the U.S., its allies and North Korea closer to lowering the temperature on the Korean Peninsula.
“I don’t have high expectations that a short, temporary delay in U.S.-Korea joint exercises for the Olympics will lead to any serious progress with North Korea,” said Mintaro Oba, a former State Department diplomat specializing in the peninsula.
“The U.S. government doesn’t want to set the precedent that its legal, routine military exercises with an ally are equivalent to North Korean actions that violate international law and make the region less safe,” Oba said. “That probably means the United States will want to make clear that any delay is for the stability of the peninsula during the Olympics and resume the exercises as soon as possible.”