US may ‘adjust’ military drills in South Korea for diplomacy’s sake, Esper says
SEOUL, South Korea — The United States may adjust military exercises in South Korea for the sake of diplomacy with the North, the defense secretary said, as the communist state threatened to retaliate against the drills.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper made his comments Wednesday in response to questions from reporters flying with him to Seoul for alliance talks with South Korean officials.
Washington already has canceled or reduced the scope of several annual exercises after President Donald Trump announced he was “stopping the war games” after his first summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last year.
But the North considers all allied military activity on the divided peninsula a rehearsal for an invasion and was not appeased when training continued.
“We will adjust our exercise posture either more or less depending on what diplomacy may require,” Esper said, while stressing the need to maintain readiness.
“As we consider adjusting, either dialing up or dialing down exercises and training stuff like that, we want to do that in close collaboration with our Korean partners, not as a concession to North Korea or anything, but again, as a means to keep the door open to diplomacy,” he said, according to a transcript from the Pentagon.
Negotiations aimed at persuading the North to give up its nuclear weapons program have faltered after the two sides failed to reach an agreement during the second Trump-Kim summit in February and subsequent working-level talks.
Kim Jong Un has warned the North may abandon talks and resume long-range missile and nuclear tests if the United States doesn’t come up with a more flexible approach by the end of the year.
Esper said he takes that threat seriously but stressed the need to keep military forces prepared for action to enable the diplomats to do their jobs.
North Korea, meanwhile, lashed out at U.S.-South Korea air force drills that are planned for next month “despite our repeated warnings.”
“Now that the physical movement of threatening our sovereignty and the security environment is clearly seen, it is the exercise of the full-fledged self-defensive right of a sovereign state to take countermeasures to contain it,” a spokesman for the State Affairs Commission said earlier Wednesday.
“The U.S. has to ponder over what it can do during the short last hours left,” the unnamed official said in a statement on the state-run Korean Central News Agency.
Esper, who is making his second trip to South Korea since taking office, also reiterated that he will press Seoul to reverse its decision to terminate a military intelligence sharing agreement with Japan, which expires on Nov. 23.
South Korea gave notice in August that it would cancel the General Security of Military Information Agreement, known as GSOMIA, due to a dispute with Japan over trade and historical issues.
“The GSOMI agreement must be maintained,” Esper said. “It’s critical to sharing intelligence, particularly in a timely manner with regard to any type of North Korean actions.”
“The only folks who are benefiting from this dispute right now are North Korea and China,” he added.
Esper will travel to Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam after his visit to South Korea ends this weekend.
“The broader message is that we are postured to deal with China in the long run,” he said. “China is our number one priority in this new era of global — of great power competition.”