In a move that is likely to enrage nuclear-armed North Korea, the South Korean Defense Ministry said Tuesday that by the end of next month it will announce plans for postponed joint military exercises with the United States.
South Korean defense chief Song Young-moo said that he would join U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to announce the drills’ schedule sometime between the conclusion of the Winter Paralympics on March 18 and the start of April, according to the Yonhap news agency.
The drills had been postponed to avoid conflicting with the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and Paralympics in South Korea. After the decision to reschedule the exercises — known as Key Resolve and Foal Eagle — Pyongyang and Seoul held their first official talks in more than two years, discussions that culminated in an agreement by North Korea to send athletes and others to the Winter Games and easing the standoff over the North’s nuclear and missile programs.
“The exercises were postponed according to the spirit of the Olympics,” Song said. “We have agreed to uphold the basis until after the Paralympics … and not to confirm nor deny anything regarding what we would do after that until we announce it.”
Song added that the inter-Korean talks had not come about as a direct result of the postponed exercises and denied that the North had asked for the delay as a condition for taking part in the Olympics.
In its report to the National Assembly, the Defense Ministry said that the U.S. and South Korean militaries would hold the Key Resolve and Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercises in order to further refine Seoul’s “4D Operational Concept,” which is to “detect, defend, disrupt and destroy” the North’s missile inventory, including nuclear, chemical and biological warheads.
The report, however, did not mention the Foal Eagle drills, which are a series of joint and combined ground, air, naval and special operations field exercises, or the exact schedule for the Key Resolve and Ulchi Freedom Guardian drills, according to Yonhap. Key Resolve and Foal Eagle typically have begun in late February or early March, while Ulchi Freedom Guardian is held each year in August or September.
It was unclear if this signified possible disagreement within the alliance or if the apparent ambiguity was a nod to Pyongyang. North Korea views the exercises as a rehearsal for invasion, and has long used them as a pretext for its own provocations. The U.S. and South Korea say they are purely defensive measures.
In a pair of blistering commentaries released Monday, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency blasted the U.S. over what it said were moves to stifle the emerging intra-Korean detente, saying that the country is “fully ready for both dialogue and war” and prepared to respond to any U.S. “provocation by prompt counterstrike.”
Taking aim at the joint exercises, one commentary slammed Marc Knapper, the current charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, who said earlier this month that the drills would be conducted in April.
“The Trump group’s racket for resuming the war exercises is a wild act of ruthlessly trampling even a small sprout of peace that has been now seen on the Korean Peninsula,” the commentary said.
“This proves that the U.S. war shadow expected to loom after the Olympics has begun to be activated in its practical phase,” it added.
Pyongyang, which has been slapped with a series of tough U.N. and unilateral sanctions, has seen its ties with Seoul thaw amid a “charm offensive” that saw North Korean leader Kim Jong Un dispatch his younger sister to the games to deliver an offer to host a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
Moon said Saturday that it was too early to think about a meeting despite the Olympic-driven rapprochement with its neighbor, but added that “there are high hopes for a North-South summit.”
Moon has had to walk a fine line, balancing both his desire for improved North-South ties and demands from the U.S. — Seoul’s top ally — that it adhere to the White House’s policy of “maximum pressure.”
It remains unclear if Moon might ask the U.S. for an even further delay to the military exercises, but Michiel Hoogeveen, an independent researcher focusing on North Korea, called Tuesday’s announcement “a great test” that could reveal both sides true intentions.
It could help determine “whether the U.S. is willing to reduce tensions by following the example of South Korea,” Hoogeveen said, while also making clear “whether North Korea is willing to refrain from nuclear and ballistic missile testing and to continue dialogue.”
The North has conducted a spate of test launches over the last year, including that of a long-range missile experts believe is capable of striking most of the U.S. It also unleashed its most powerful nuclear blast to date in September, in what it claimed was a test of a thermonuclear weapon.
On Monday, KCNA said the North would “resolutely counter any act of harassing peace and security on the Korean Peninsula,” adding that this was “by no means any rhetorical threat.”
However valuable the improvement in North-South ties and the peaceful environment may be, it said, “it is the principled stand and unshakable will of the army and people of the DPRK to counter provocation by prompt counterstrike.”
In a separate KCNA commentary, the North assailed the U.S. and President Donald Trump for hinting at the possibility of military action to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.
“The DPRK is fully ready for both dialogue and war,” the commentary said, using the acronym for the North’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
“The army and people of the DPRK are full of strength and will to teach the U.S. with resolute and merciless punishment that the latter’s reckless military option will never offer a way to survive.”
Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea expert and lecturer at Troy University in Seoul, said that despite Pyongyang’s Olympic charm offensive, he saw little change in its tactics and goals.
“North Korea is quite consistent,” Pinkston said. “Many people are dazzled by the Olympic Games, but the games will be over in a week. Six months from now, most people won’t be thinking of the Olympics that much, and it will become more clear that the underlying interests and strategies have not changed much, if at all.
“North Korea will continue to pursue its united front tactics on the peninsula, ‘decoupling’ of the U.S. from the ROK, acceptance as a ‘normal nuclear state,’ and sanctions relief,” he added, using the acronym for South Korea’s formal name.