Asia Pacific

Two Koreas discuss how to cooperate in Asian Games as cancellation of 'large-scale' U.S.- South Korea military appears imminent

AP, Reuters

Sports officials from the rival Koreas met at a border village Monday to discuss how to cooperate in the Asian Games being held in Indonesia in August.

A flurry of inter-Korean talks are under way after last week’s landmark summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un extended a temporary detente on the Korean Peninsula.

Sunday, the South’s Yonhap news agency reported that Seoul and Washington were expected to announce the suspension of “large-scale” military drills this week, with the provision that they would restart if North Korea failed to keep its promise to denuclearize.

Monday’s talks at the Panmunjom village were to focus on whether to conduct a joint march and field joint teams in certain events in the Asian Games, according to South Korea’s Sports Ministry.

Holding friendly inter-Korean basketball matches — which Kim proposed during a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in April — was also on the agenda at the talks, ministry spokesman Hwang Seong Un said.

The two Koreas plan to hold a series of talks in the coming days to discuss resuming reunions of families divided by the 1950-53 Korean War; reconnecting severed cross-border railway and road connections; and establishing a liaison office in the North. Generals of the Koreas met last Thursday and agreed to restore military hotline communication channels.

During their summit last week, Kim reaffirmed his vague commitment to work toward the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” while Trump promised to provide security guarantees to North Korea and suspend the joint military drills as long as negotiations with the North continue in “good faith.”

Trump has credited the summit deal with saving tens of millions of people from nuclear war. But many in South Korea and the United States have criticized him for giving too many concessions to North Korea without winning any meaningful disarmament pledges from the country.

The ongoing detente began in January when Kim expressed his intentions of sending a delegation to the Winter Olympics in South Korea the following month. The Koreas eventually formed their first joint Olympic team in women’s hockey and had their athletes paraded together during the opening ceremony for the first time in 11 years.

Sunday’s Yonhap report, citing an unnamed government source, said the suspension of the joint exercises was likely to affect only major joint drills, not more routine military training.

Trump surprised officials in Seoul and Washington when he pledged to end “war games” after his summit with Kim. Immediately after the announcement, U.S. forces in Korea said they had received no guidance on stopping any drills, and South Korean officials said they were trying to figure out which exercises Trump was referring to.

However, in a sign Seoul may be open to suspending drills, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Thursday his government would need to be flexible when it came to applying military pressure on North Korea if it was sincere about denuclearization.

Moon said South Korea would carefully consider joint military drills with the United States and he asked his officials to cooperate with the United States on the issue, his office said in a statement at the time.

Yonhap also reported Sunday that during military talks between the two Koreas on Thursday, South Korean officials asked their northern counterparts to relocate artillery 30 to 40 km away from the heavily fortified military demarcation line that divides the two countries.

The South’s Defense Ministry denied it made such a request, Yonhap said.

The talks, the first in more than a decade, held in the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), followed an inter-Korean summit in April at which leaders of the two Koreas agreed to defuse tensions and cease “all hostile acts.”

North and South Korea failed to reach any concrete agreement during those talks, officials said.

North Korea proposed to Seoul to disarm, on a trial basis, the Joint Security Area in Panmunjom, the only site in the DMZ where both countries’ soldiers stand almost face to face, the South’s presidential spokesman said Friday.

About 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea, a legacy of the Korean War, which ended in 1953 in an armistice that left the two Koreas technically still at war.

Trump said via Twitter on Sunday that it was his initiative to suspend the military drills — a step North Korea has long sought.

“Holding back the ‘war games’ during the negotiations was my request because they are VERY EXPENSIVE and set a bad light during a good faith negotiation,” the U.S. president wrote. “Also, quite provocative. Can start up immediately if talks break down, which I hope will not happen!”

At a Senate hearing Thursday, Trump’s nominee to be ambassador to South Korea, retired Adm. Harry Harris, backed the idea of a “pause” in major military exercises. He said his understanding was that any suspension would involve only major military exercises and that regular training of U.S. forces in South Korea would continue, although final decisions were up to the Department of Defense.

The U.S.-South Korean exercise calendar hits a high point every year with the Foal Eagle and Max Thunder drills, which both wrapped up last month.

The next major drill, Ulchi Freedom Guardian, is planned for the end of the summer.

Last year, 17,500 American and more than 50,000 South Korean troops participated in the Ulchi Freedom Guardian drills, although the exercise is mostly focused on computerized simulations rather than live field exercises that use weapons, tanks or aircraft.