US, S. Korea agree to suspend military drills during Olympics



Thu, 04 Jan 2018 - 06:11 GMT


Thu, 04 Jan 2018 - 06:11 GMT

The United States and South Korea will not carry out military exercises -- like this one featuring US aircraft in December -- during the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang

The United States and South Korea will not carry out military exercises -- like this one featuring US aircraft in December -- during the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang

UNITED STATES - 4 January 2018: The United States and South Korea have agreed to delay joint military exercises until after the Winter Olympics next month, the government in Seoul announced Thursday, in an apparent move to de-escalate tensions with Pyongyang.

The announcement came just hours after US President Donald Trump said that high-level talks set for next week between North and South Korea were "a good thing."

Tensions have spiralled in recent months after North Korea held multiple missile launches and its sixth and most powerful nuclear test -- purportedly of a hydrogen bomb.

Trump has also traded personal insults with his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-Un, rattling regional allies.

But the last few days has witnessed a rare softening of tone on both sides of the demilitarised zone after Kim offered an olive branch to Seoul during a New Year's speech saying he was willing to send a team to next month's Winter Olympics in the South.

The tentative rapprochement took a further step on Thursday when the office of South Korean President Moon Jae-In announced a suspension of joint military drills with the United States, a regular source of Pyongyang's ire.

"The two leaders agreed that the US-South Korea joint military exercises will not be carried out during the Olympics period, and the armed forces of the two countries should do their best to guarantee the safety of the Olympics," Moon's office said in a statement.

Trump and Moon made the decision during a phone conversation Thursday, Seoul said.

The statement quoted Moon as telling Trump that delaying the exercises would help ensure the success of the Winter Olympics -- being hosted by the South next month in Pyeongchang -- "in case the North does not make any more provocations".

"The Department of Defense supports the president's decision and what is in the best interest of the ROK-US Alliance," a Pentagon spokesman, Colonel Rob Manning, said, referring to South Korea by its official acronym.

- New Year rapprochement -

Seoul has responded positively to Kim's New Year speech. The two Koreas on Wednesday restored a cross-border hotline that had been shut down since 2016.

They also agreed to hold high-level talks next week -- the first since 2015 -- which will focus on "matters of mutual interest", including the North's participation in the Winter Olympics.

North Korea's young leader has shrugged off a raft of new sanctions and heightened rhetoric from Washington as his regime drives forward with its weapons programmes, which it says are meant to defend against US aggression.

While Trump called the talks a "good thing" in a tweet on Thursday, his ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, struck a much more cautious tone earlier in the week.

"We won't take any of the talks seriously if they don't do something to ban all nuclear weapons in North Korea," she said Tuesday.

A State Department spokeswoman also warned that Pyongyang's olive branch may be an attempt to "drive a wedge of some sort" between Washington and Seoul.

Pyongyang's missile and nuclear tests has seen the isolated state slapped with painful new sanctions that even its key ally China have backed.

But South Korea and Washington's regular joint military drills have also been criticised by some as adding to regional tensions, particularly by Beijing and Moscow who have both called for them to be suspended.

Russia's deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov on Thursday said he "welcomed" the halting of drills during the Olympics.

News agency RIA Novosti quoted him as saying that that Moscow "observes with satisfaction" that their calls to halt the manouevres have been "taken into account".

Kim's New Year address also included a warning to the US that he has a "nuclear button" on his table, prompting a furious response from Trump via Twitter that Washington's nuclear button was "much bigger and more powerful".

The tweet generated responses both on Twitter and from analysts largely of scorn and alarm.



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