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South Korea downplays Pentagon plan to restart joint drills

August 29, 2018

South Korean officials on Wednesday downplayed the Pentagon’s announcement that it will move ahead with future U.S.-South Korea military exercises amid concern that a suspension of the drills in recent months has done little to inspire North Korea to denuclearize.

A spokesman for South Korean President Moon Jae-in said U.S. officials have yet to work with their South Korean counterparts on whether to resume or continue to suspend the drills, which President Trump halted in June as a show of “good faith” in talks with North Korea.

“As of now, the issue has not been discussed between South Korea and the United States,” Kim Eui-kyeon, a spokesman from the Seoul’s presidential office told reporters during a daily press briefing Wednesday, according to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.

The remarks came after U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis made international headlines Tuesday by telling reporters at the Pentagon that the U.S. military has “no plans at this time to suspend any more exercises.”

Mr. Mattis’ announcement, which underscored U.S. frustration with the slow pace of denuclearization talks with Pyongyang, came less three months after President Trump labeled the U.S.-South Korean drills “provocative” and ordered them temporarily halted following his unprecedented face-to-face meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

“We took the step to suspend several of our largest exercises as a good faith measure coming out of the Singapore summit,” Mr. Mattis told reporters Tuesday, referring to the historic June 12meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim.

The Pentagon issued a follow-up statement on Wednesday, appearing to walk back Mr. Mattis’ comments and suggesting that discussions remain ongoing over the future status of the joint U.S.-South Korea drills.

The statement, attributed to the secretary of defense, said that the U.S. military’s posture “has not changed since the conclusion of the Singapore summit and no decisions have been made about suspending any future exercises.”

Pyongyang has long characterized the joint U.S.-South Korea drills as imperialist provocations by Washington. South Korea, which has played a lead role in facilitating the delicate current push for diplomacy with the North, is seen to carry significant influence over the size and tempo of the drills.

Following the Singapore summit, U.S. and South Korean officials agreed to halt the drills for as long as North Korea maintained good faith progress toward abandoning its nuclear weapons.

According to Yonhap, the presidential spokesman in Seoul said Wednesday that the decision to suspend the exercises only affected drills that had been scheduled for this year.

But the spokesman insisted any changes to the agreement must be subject to additional discussions. “It is an issue that should be discussed and decided by South Korea and the U.S. while reviewing the progress in the denuclearization of North Korea,” he said.

Ben Wolfgang contributed to this report.

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