- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 17, 2019

The U.S. and South Korea have postponed joint military exercises that were scheduled for Monday in what the Pentagon has called an “act of good will” aimed at boosting diplomatic efforts with North Korea.

The move comes as the Trump White House seeks fresh momentum in denuclearization talks with the North, which have shown little progress since a summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un broke up abruptly without a deal in February in Hanoi.

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper told reporters in Seoul over the weekend that suspending the exercises, which North Korea has long seen as provocative, was done “to facilitate a political agreement — a deal, if you will — that leads to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”

Washington and Seoul have previously suspended the military exercises after criticism from Pyongyang that the practices are in preparation for an invasion of their country. Mr. Trump has also complained about the expense of the exercises even as he has pressed Seoul to contribute more for the U.S. defensive mission on the divided peninsula.

The U.S. and South Korea have repeatedly denied the joint maneuvers are a threat, but Mr. Esper said that despite the cancellation, both forces “will remain at a high state of readiness.”

The Sunday announcement came just one week after U.S. and South Korean officials held a strategy meeting on the sidelines of the 2019 Moscow Nonproliferation Conference to discuss ways to breathe new life into the talks. Pyongyang has set a year-end deadline for the U.S. to offer fresh negotiating proposals, in particular a schedule to lift punishing international economic sanctions against it.

Mr. Kim agreed to participate in talks with a team led by U.S. North Korea special envoy Stephen E. Biegun last month in Stockholm but negotiations broke down after less than a day as North Korean officials accused Washington of “hostile” posturing.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley said the cancellation of the joint exercise is intended “to give the North Koreans an opportunity to reconsider some of their recent provocations and come back to the negotiating table.”

But it doesn’t appear that North Korea is willing to do so just yet.

A spokesperson for the North Korean Foreign Ministry said shortly after the U.S.-South Korean weekend announcement that it does not intend to continue negotiations unless “the issue of withdrawing the U.S. hostile policy to improve relations with us be brought up in the agenda for dialogue.”

The statement condemned a recent vote on Capitol Hill endorsing a U.N. resolution denouncing various human rights violations in North Korea, and called the approval part of a wider “hostile policy” against Pyongyang.

The exercise suspension, which was confirmed during a meeting of defense ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Bangkok by U.S. and South Korean defense chiefs, was met with skepticism from Japan, the country directly in the path of Pyongyang’s expanding missile program.

Japan Defense Minister Taro Kono warned Mr. Esper that “no one could be optimistic about” changing North Korea’s hostility.

Just hours after the announcement, Mr. Trump advised Mr. Kim to “act quickly” to strike a denuclearization deal with the U.S.

In an odd twist, Mr. Trump came to the defense of Democratic rival Joseph R. Biden, after North Korea’s state-run news agency that called former vice president a “rabid dog” who “must be beaten to death with a stick.”

It was not clear what inspired the North’s vitriol, but Mr. Biden said he would wear Friday’s insults as a “badge of honor,” and even Mr. Trump said the attack went too far.

“Mr. Chairman, Joe Biden may be Sleepy and Very Slow, but he is not a ‘rabid dog,’” Mr. Trump tweeted to Mr. Kim. “He is actually somewhat better than that, but I am the only one who can get you where you have to be. You should act quickly, get the deal done. See you soon!”

It was not clear if Mr. Trump was hinting at a possible new meeting with the North Korean leader.

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