US, S. Korean Marines resume joint drills as Pompeo prepares for nuclear talks
SEOUL, South Korea — Hundreds of U.S. and South Korean Marines resumed joint exercises in a southeastern port city Monday, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo prepared for another round of nuclear talks with the North.
The drills, which are usually held several times a year and are known as the Korean Marine Exchange Program, had been indefinitely suspended along with larger-scale war games after the unprecedented summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June.
But South Korea’s Defense Ministry said about 500 Marines began a two-week exercise Monday in the city of Pohang.
It didn’t provide more details, but an official with the South Korean Marine Corps said the combined training would include the III Marine Expeditionary Force from Okinawa, Japan, along with Korean amphibious-assault vehicles and live maneuvers.
Joint exercises between the longtime allies routinely infuriate the North, which considers them a rehearsal for an invasion, but critics expressed concern that Trump’s decision to suspend joint training could harm readiness.
The South Korean military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Marines had planned to conduct 19 KMEP exercises this year, but eight of them had been canceled.
Trump announced after the Singapore summit that “we will be stopping the war games,” calling them “provocative” and “very expensive.” The larger exercises that have been suspended include Ulchi Freedom Guardian and an Air Force operation known as Vigilant Ace.
The allies have said they’re reviewing whether to hold major exercises next year and will make a decision by Dec. 1.
Officials said the Marine drills that began Monday are in line with a decision to continue training at the level of battalions and below while eschewing the larger war games to avoid disrupting talks with the communist state.
Pompeo, meanwhile, said Sunday that he plans to meet with his North Korean counterpart Kim Yong Chol in New York later this week in a push to get efforts to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons back on track.
Kim agreed to work toward the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” during his summit with Trump and separate meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. But negotiations have stalled over how that should be accomplished.
Administration officials also have said Trump is likely to hold a second summit with Kim early next year.
“I expect we’ll make some real progress, including an effort to make sure that the summit between our two leaders can take place, where we can make substantial steps towards denuclearization,” Pompeo said in an interview broadcast Sunday on the CBS news program “Face the Nation.”
He cited positive steps taken by the North Koreans, including a suspension of missile and nuclear tests and returning the remains of some U.S. troops killed in the 1950-53 Korean War.
“We continue to make good progress. I’m confident that we’ll advance the ball again this week when I’m in New York City,” he said, stressing that verification will be key.
“Not only complete denuclearization, but our capacity to verify that that has taken place,” he said.
Stars and Stripes reporter Yoo Kyong Chang contributed to this report.