US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper yesterday said that the US and South Korea have indefinitely postponed a joint military exercise in an “act of goodwill” toward North Korea.
The move comes even as Japanese Minister of Defense Taro Kono, whose country feels threatened by repeated North Korean missile launches, told Esper that “no one could be optimistic about” changing the North’s behavior.
The statement by Kono was a stark illustration of the difficulties facing the US and its international allies and partners as they struggle to get North Korea back to negotiations to eliminate its nuclear weapons and missiles.
Although the US military for years as called its joint military exercises with South Korea an important means of keeping troops and commanders ready for combat on short notice, US President Donald Trump has called them a waste of money and a provocation to the North.
Esper announced the postponement of the military exercise at a joint news conference with South Korean Minister of National Defense Jeong Kyeong-doo.
They were in Bangkok to attend an Asian defense ministers’ conference.
Esper insisted the postponement was not a concession to North Korea, but rather an attempt to “keep the door open” to diplomacy to eliminate the North’s nuclear weapons.
“I see this as a good-faith effort by the United States and the Republic of Korea to enable peace, to shape ... to facilitate a political agreement — a deal, if you will — that leads to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Esper told reporters.
The North hardly seemed ready to reciprocate.
Shortly after Esper and Jeong spoke, the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a written statement of defiance.
It said that it has no plans to negotiate its nuclear programs, even if talks were to resume, unless the US offers to first discuss the withdrawal of its “hostile” policies against Pyongyang.
The statement also criticized Washington’s support of a recent UN resolution condemning the North’s widespread human rights violations, claiming that the resolution shows continued US intent to isolate the North and destroy its political system.
The North has also harshly criticized US-South Korean military drills as provocative and as preparations for an invasion.
Kono met with Esper and Jeong after they made their announcement.
With reporters and photographers present, Kono said it was important that the three nations consult closely “under the current situation where no one could be optimistic about North Korea.”
The North Koreans have launched “more than 20 missiles this year including new types of missiles as well as a submarine-launched ballistic missile” in contravention of UN Security Council resolutions, he added.
Kono called North Korea “a serious threat to peace and stability” in Japan and across the region.
Esper told reporters he did not consider the postponement a concession to North Korea, although it follows earlier cutbacks in the scale and prominence of US-South Korean exercises.
“We have made this decision as an act of goodwill to contribute to an environment conducive to diplomacy and the advancement of peace,” Esper said.
Esper also urged the North to return to the negotiating table “without precondition or hesitation.”
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