- The Washington Times - Monday, August 5, 2019

The U.S. and South Korea on Monday moved forward with planned joint military exercises, despite warnings that the drills could derail President Trump’s personal diplomacy with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

The exercises, which come as Pyongyang reportedly conducted its fourth short-range missile test in the last three weeks Tuesday morning, are expected to prepare South Korea’s military to retake “wartime operational control” of its forces from the U.S., The Associated Press reported.

North Korea has warned that any resumption of stalled nuclear talks with the Trump administration could be thrown into jeopardy if the U.S. and South Korea go forward with the annual drills. South Korean media reported that the drills, which will be overseen by a South Korean general, will be “toned down” compared to exercises with the U.S. in the past.

The exercises come as the newly confirmed Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper makes his first overseas trip as Pentagon chief to several Pacific nations, including to South Korea. The drills may be timed for Mr. Esper’s arrival in Seoul Friday.

A U.S. defense official told The Washington Times that “as a matter of standard operating procedure, and in order to preserve space for diplomacy to work, we are not discussing planned training or exercises publicly at the moment.”

The Hawaii-based U.S. Indo-Pacific Command will “continue to train in a combined manner … while harmonizing our training program with diplomatic efforts,” the Pentagon said.

Over the past week, North Korea has tested several rocket and missile systems, apparently to signal its displeasure with the exercises and pressure Washington to step up its diplomatic efforts.

Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said Tuesday’s projectiles were launched from an area near the North’s western coast and flew cross-country before landing in waters off the country’s eastern coast, the AP reported. On Saturday, North Korean media reported that Mr. Kim had personally supervised the previous test of a new multiple rocket launcher system.

In a statement Monday, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry again sharply criticized the U.S.-South Korea war-games, saying they leave Mr. Kim’s regime “compelled to develop, test and deploy the powerful physical means essential for national defense.”

President Trump first raised the idea of stopping or scaling back annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises as an olive branch to Mr. Kim after their first meeting in Singapore in the summer of 2018. But experts say the exercises are necessary for protecting allies and U.S. troops based in the region.

Robert A. Manning, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Atlantic Council think tank, said that the North is “continuing to develop their missile capability, which threatens not only Japan and Korea, but also U.S. forces and American citizens in South Korea.”

“If you don’t exercise, you don’t have an alliance, you can’t fight together,” he continued.

The U.S. and South Korea have canceled some previously planned military exercises as a gesture to North Korea, but after three inconclusive summits, it appears the allied nations are ready to resume the drills — which North Korea has viewed as preparation for an eventual invasion.

The February summit between President Trump and Mr. Kim broke down when the two sides failed to agree to a far-reaching deal to end Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs. Mr. Trump said at the time that he had to walk away because Mr. Kim was demanding sweeping sanctions relief for only a limited commitment to destroy part of his arsenal.

Mr. Trump has publicly lamented the cost of conducting the joint military drills. After his first summit with Mr. Kim in June of last year, the president announced that the U.S. would be “stopping the war games” with South Korea. He said the drills are “very expensive” and “very provocative.”

“We suspended exercises for almost a year and a half,” Mr. Manning noted. “And [the North Koreans] still have yet to come to the table and in talks, even when they’ve made commitments to the president,” Mr. Manning said.

“One of the consequences of giving Kim the legitimacy of all these summits [is] that he feels he has some leverage and to some extent the president’s being played,” he added. “A lot of people were very taken aback when the president dismissed these missile tests as no big deal. That was really inappropriate.”

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