Asia Pacific

Pentagon pushes back after North Korea slams scaled-down maneuvers with South

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

The Pentagon on Thursday pushed back against North Korean criticism of joint U.S. military exercises with South Korea scheduled for next month.

“We don’t scale or conduct our exercises based off North Korea’s anger,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Eastburn told The Japan Times. “Our exercises, like the combined air exercise you’re asking about, ensure readiness and enhance interoperability between the U.S. and South Korea while allowing the diplomats the space they need to have open conversations with North Korea.”

Senior North Korean Foreign Ministry official Kwon Jong Gun said in a statement carried by state-run media late Wednesday that the decision to conduct the joint aerial training, apparently a scaled-down version of the Vigilant Ace exercises last held in 2017, was “an extremely provocative and dangerous act” that amounted to “throwing a wet blanket over the spark of the DPRK-U.S. dialogue on the verge of extinction.”

Kwon was a member of a North Korean delegation that took part in the working-level nuclear talks held with the U.S. in Sweden last month.

The negotiations have effectively been deadlocked since those working-level talks ended with the North’s new top negotiator, Kim Myong Gil, saying they had broken off “entirely due to the United States’ failure to abandon its outdated viewpoint and attitude.”

Top officials in Pyongyang have in recent months delivered a slew of scathing statements blasting what it says is Washington’s “hostile policy” toward the nuclear-armed North.

Kwon pointed to U.S. President Donald Trump’s pledge after his first meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June last year to halt U.S. and joint military exercises on the Korean Peninsula.

The North views the exercises, which both Pyongyang and Trump have called “war games,” as a rehearsal for invasion.

In the 2017 iteration of Vigilant Ace, as tensions with North Korea soared to new heights, the two allies mobilized some 230 aircraft. The U.S. military says its joint exercises are defense-oriented, and, in accordance with Trump’s pledges, it has scaled back or canceled the largest exercises.

But that wasn’t enough to satisfy Pyongyang.

“The U.S. intention to openly hold war exercise against the DPRK at a sensitive time when the whole world is concerned about the prospect of the DPRK-U.S. relations clearly proves again its nature as the chieftain harassing world peace and security and the hegemonic state regarding the recourse to military strength as a cure-for-all in settling issues,” Kwon said in his statement.

“No one will believe that the changed war exercises will change their aggression nature,” he added, repeating a warning from other top officials not to test the North.

“Our patience is nearing the limitations and we will never remain an onlooker to the reckless military moves of the U.S.,” he said.

On Monday, South Korea’s spy agency said that a new round of working-level discussions was likely to be held this month or early next month, with Kim eyeing a December summit with Trump ahead of the dictator’s self-set end-of-the-year deadline for progress in denuclearization negotiations.

South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) told a closed-door parliamentary audit session that it “expected the working-level talks to resume no later than early December,” Rep. Lee Eun-jae of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party said.

“As the two sides identified each other’s stance in their Stockholm talks in October, the time appears to be coming for them to launch full-fledged consultations,” Lee said.

Another lawmaker, Rep. Kim Min-ki of the ruling Democratic Party, said the NIS “thinks Kim has set his mind on another summit in December.”

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5