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U.S. and South Korea postpone military drills in bid to save North Korea dialogue

A bilateral agreement on Nov. 17 postponed joint air drills that were scheduled this month in an attempt to save a faltering dialogue process with North Korea. (Video: Reuters)

TOKYO — The United States and South Korea have postponed joint air drills that were scheduled this month in an attempt to save a faltering dialogue process with North Korea, officials announced Sunday.

North Korea said the cancellation of the exercises would be seen as a positive gesture by President Trump to preserve the momentum of negotiations but threatened “shocking punishment” if the United States went ahead with a “hostile provocation.”

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper announced the postponement of the exercises at a news conference alongside his South Korean counterpart, Jeong Kyeong-doo, on the sidelines of a regional meeting in Bangkok, news agencies reported.

“I don’t see this as a concession. I see this as a good-faith effort . . . to enable peace,” Esper said. “I think creating some more space for our diplomats to strike an agreement on the denuclearization of the peninsula is very important.”

North Korea has long maintained that Trump promised to cancel the exercises at a summit with its leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore in 2018. It also argues the United States has done nothing to reciprocate its decision to end nuclear and long-range missile tests.

Since then, the United States and South Korea have significantly scaled back their joint military drills but have still conducted smaller exercises to maintain combat readiness.

It remains to be seen if the postponement will help prompt a breakthrough in the negotiations between the two sides.

Esper called on North Korea to “demonstrate the same goodwill” and to “return to the negotiating table without precondition or hesitation.”

North Korea, however, did not respond positively.

In a statement, an unnamed Foreign Ministry spokesman said he had tried to interpret U.S. willingness to adjust the drills as part of a positive attempt to relieve tension and open a window for dialogue but said this had been shaken by a United Nations resolution passed last week criticizing North Korea’s human rights record.

It was clear, he said, that the United States had not abandoned “its futile dreams of destroying our system,” describing the issue of human rights as a pretext used by “imperialists” to invade countries that do not obey them.

The spokesman accused the United States of not being interested in repairing relations through dialogue.

“We are no longer motivated to face this opponent,” the statement said, saying nuclear issues will never be discussed unless the United States drops its “hostile policy.”

Talks in Stockholm broke down last month with North Korea accusing the United States of being vicious and crafty, and the two sides still seem a long way apart. Pyongyang has threatened to resume its nuclear and long-range missile tests unless the United States changes its negotiating stance.

It has already conducted a series of short-range ballistic missile tests and has also been steadily raising its demands since the breakdown of a summit between Trump and Kim in Hanoi in February.

Washington insists North Korea must show sincere commitment to denuclearize and take irreversible steps to dismantle its nuclear weapons industry before sanctions relief can be considered.

Min Joo Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.

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