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Thursday, December 20, 2018, 23:10
ROK seeks smaller military drills with US amid DPRK talks
By Reuters
Thursday, December 20, 2018, 23:10 By Reuters

In this Sept 19, 2017 photo, US soldiers participate in a US-Republic of Korea (ROK) combined arms collective training exercise at the US army's Rodriguez shooting range in Pocheon, about 70 km northeast of Seoul near the heavily-fortified border with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). As part of an effort to boost nuclear diplomacy with the DPRK, the ROK wants to hold smaller joint military drills with the US next year, says Seoul’s defense ministry. (JUNG YEON-JE / AFP)

SEOUL – The Republic of Korea (ROK) wants to hold smaller joint military drills with the United States next year, Seoul’s defense ministry said Thursday, scaling back larger exercises as part of an effort to boost nuclear diplomacy with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). 

The allies have suspended a number of combined military exercises this year as tensions on the Korean Peninsula eased and Washington began talks to dismantle Pyongyang's nuclear program. 

US special representative for the DPRK Stephen Biegun said Wednesday humanitarian aid to the DPRK could be expedited in a move seen aimed at reviving the stalled nuclear talks

The DPRK has denounced the annual drills, which in the past involved hundreds of thousands of troops, warships and aircraft, as a "rehearsal for war." 

With nuclear talks underway, Seoul and Washington are discussing scaling back their regular field exercises, including Foal Eagle in early 2019, and hold two computer-simulated command post drills next year, the defense ministry said. 

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said last month the Foal Eagle exercise would be "reorganized a bit to keep it at a level that will not be harmful to diplomacy" with the DPRK. 

READ MORE: US, ROK to reduce scope of Foal Eagle military drill, says Mattis

The defense ministry delivered its plan to President Moon Jae-in on Thursday as part of its annual policy briefing. 

"Joint field exercises would take place all year round after adjusting the scale," the ministry said in a statement. 

The plan is also expected to affect a major summer exercise known as Ulchi Freedom Guardian, which the allies suspended last year for the first time in 28 years. 

In his opening remarks at the briefing, Moon said the ROK’s strong defense had underpinned "a new chapter of history of peace on the Korean peninsula." 

ALSO READ: Pentagon indefinitely suspends some more drills with ROK

"But it's only provisional peace," he said. "We have to establish unwavering, lasting peace next year." 

This March 22, 2017 image obtained from the US Navy shows the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, left, and the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Wayne E Meyer during a surface maneuvers exercise, east of the Korean Peninsula, with several other US and Republic of Korea Navy ships and submarines during exercise Foal Eagle 2017. (RYAN HARPER / US NAVY / AFP)

Relations improved this year between the two Koreas, technically still at war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. 

They have held three leaders' summits and signed a pact to establish a no-fly zone, remove landmines and guard posts near their heavily-guarded border. 

DPRK leader Kim Jong-un also met US President Donald Trump in June at a historic summit in Singapore. They vowed to work towards denuclearization, but both sides have made little progress since then. 

Stephen Biegun, the US special representative for the DPRK, said Wednesday humanitarian aid to the DPRK could be expedited in a move seen aimed at reviving the stalled nuclear talks.

JOINT INSPECTION OF ROAD

The ROK and the DPRK Korea Thursday agreed to conduct a joint inspection on a 100-km road along the DPRK's east coast from Goseong to Wonsan ahead of a groundbreaking ceremony on Dec 26 to modernize and connect railways and roads across the border, according to Seoul's unification ministry.

A 10-member ROK working-level delegation will start a three-day visit to the DPRK Friday.

After returning home Sunday, the working-level officials will visit the DPRK again Monday to inspect a 4-km road near the DPRK's western border town of Kaesong together with DPRK officials.

The inspection would come ahead of the groundbreaking ceremony at the Panmun Station in Kaesong on Dec 26.

TENSION REDUCTION MEASURES

Also on Thursday, the ROK's military planned to facilitate tension reduction with the DPRK, while preparing to restore its wartime operational command of ROK troops from the United States, Seoul's defense ministry said.

The ministry said in its 2019 policy report to Moon that it will continue to enforce the comprehensive military agreement with the DPRK, which was signed by defense chiefs of the two Koreas during the Pyongyang summit in September between Moon and Kim.

Under the agreement, the two sides decided to stop all hostile acts on the ground, in waters and the air near the inter-Korean border, to pull out guard posts from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), and to jointly excavate the remains in the DMZ of the soldiers killed during the 1950-53 Korean War.

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