Exercises are meant to ensure the readiness of U.S. and South Korean forces “to deter and, if necessary, defeat our adversaries,” Esper said, speaking alongside South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo after a meeting in Seoul.
“The purpose of our armed forces and our exercises is not only to buttress our diplomacy, but to also enable and empower it,” he said. “So we always have to remain flexible in terms of how we support our diplomats to ensure that we do not close any doors that may allow forward progress on the diplomatic front.”
The remarks signaled Washington’s desire to not let the faltering dialogue process with North Korea blow completely off course, while making clear that the United States is not prepared to sacrifice military readiness for the sake of resuming talks.
Similar comments from Esper en route to South Korea were greeted cautiously by North Korea, which countered with a demand for a cancellation of the upcoming exercise.
“I would like to understand it as the U.S. intention to drop out of the joint military drill or completely stop it,” Kim Yong Chol, a senior North Korean official, said in a statement.
“I would like to believe that the remark of the U.S. Secretary of Defense reflected the intention of President Trump, and appreciate it as part of positive efforts of the U.S. side to preserve the motive force of the DPRK-U.S. negotiations,” he said, referring to the country’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
He then delivered a sting in the tail, saying that if the United States goes ahead with a “hostile provocation,” then Pyongyang “will be compelled to answer with shocking punishment that would be difficult for the U.S. to cope with.”
North Korea has given the United States until the end of the year to come up with a new approach to denuclearization talks, and it threatened this week to reverse an earlier decision to end nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests.
It says it feels “betrayed” because Trump did not follow through on a promise to end joint exercises with South Korea in return for a halt to Pyongyang’s long-range weapons tests.
The United States says North Korea has not taken meaningful steps to dismantle its nuclear weapons program and has done nothing to justify offering the sanctions relief the Kim Jong Un regime wants.
Talks between the two sides in Stockholm broke down last month, and U.S. and Swedish efforts to revive the dialogue have so far failed.
On Thursday, North Korea’s main negotiator, Kim Myong Gil, expressed skepticism.
“If the negotiated solution of issues is possible, we are ready to meet with the U.S. at any place and any time,” he said in a statement.
“But I intuitively feel that the U.S. is not ready to give a satisfactory answer to us and its proposal for dialogue with us is a trick to earn time,” he said. “Explicitly speaking once again, I am not interested in such a meeting.”
Min Joo Kim contributed to this report.