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Trump blows off threat by Pyongyang on tests

July 18,2019
After North Korea threatened to end its moratorium on nuclear and missile tests if U.S.-South Korean military drills go forward, U.S. President Donald Trump said Wednesday that “time is not of the essence” in his administration’s negotiations with Pyongyang.

The president’s words reinforced his ever-sanguine view of his relationship with North Korea and new talks about denuclearization, brushing aside two statements issued by Pyongyang’s Foreign Ministry on Tuesday warning that talks “would be affected” by joint U.S.-South Korean summertime exercises, which it described as “rehearsals for war.”

In one statement given in a Q&A with the Korean Central News Agency, a spokesman for the North’s Foreign Ministry said the country would “formulate our decision on the opening of […] working-level talks, while keeping watch over the U.S. move hereafter.”

A second statement released by the ministry pointed out that the North’s 20-month self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and missile tests was a voluntary gesture to improve relations with Washington and not a binding promise of any sort. It said the United States was “unilaterally reneging” on Trump’s alleged vow to not conduct further joint drills that he made during the summit held with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in the border village of Panmunjom on June 30.

The drills, known as the Dong Maeng exercises, were described by Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Eastburn as routine combined training that had already been “adjusted” for the sake of engagement with North Korea. Eastburn said the exercises would proceed as scheduled this August between U.S. and South Korean troops and that they are intended to show the U.S. commitment to South Korea’s defense.

Mark Esper, Trump’s nominee for secretary of defense, also said in a written statement submitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that the joint exercises with South Korea are “essential” for maintaining military readiness, though this response was believed to have been written before the North released its warnings.

After Trump’s historic first summit with Kim in June 2018, Washington and Seoul decided to abolish the allies’ Key Resolve exercises, regularly conducted in March to April, and replace them with the scaled down Dong Maeng command post exercise in a move apparently intended to assuage Pyongyang’s long-held objections to the joint training.

The combined command post drills in August will also partly replace the joint Ulchi Freedom Guardian drill, and the allies are set to assess troops’ initial operational capacity (IOC) with a South Korean general in charge of the Combined Forces Command for the first time. The IOC certification is meant to be the first test in a larger plan to eventually transfer wartime operational control from the United States to South Korea, according to the South’s Defense Ministry.

By making the drills’ cancellation a condition for resumed working-level talks, Pyongyang threatens to once again derail a sensitive diplomatic process that only just recovered some momentum after Trump, Kim and President Moon Jae-in’s surprise meeting last month. Trump said after the talks that working-level dialogue with the North could resume in the next “two or three weeks.”

In response to the threat, Morgan Ortagus, the U.S. State Department spokesperson, said Washington continued to look forward to resuming progress in the negotiations, and that it hoped “[U.S. Special Representative on North Korea] Steve Biegun and his team will quietly continue to make progress behind the scenes.”

When asked what kind of contact Biegun, who will head the U.S. delegation in future working-level talks, had with his North Korean counterparts, Ortagus said the U.S. government would “give [his team] time and space” to make the negotiations a success, and that public statements would not be made into the “tick-tock of who’s meeting when and how.”

Analysts say both the North and the United States are shoring up their respective positions before new talks.

The North’s linkage of negotiations with the exercises, which Kim Jong-un himself appeared to tolerate when he told South Korea’s special envoy in March 2018 that he “understands prepared training,” is akin to the brinkmanship it has shown in earlier negotiations, and suggests security guarantees remain an integral part of its calculus.

Washington, by taking a flexible stance to the timing of the talks, may be signaling that time is on its side in awaiting an acceptable proposal from Pyongyang.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]