- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 1, 2021

North Korea warned Sunday that “hostile” U.S.-South Korean military drills planned for later this month could seriously damage the recent push to improve relations between the two Koreas.

Kim Yo-Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and a powerful figure in the regime’s leadership, told the state-controlled news service KCNA that the planned drills “will become an unpleasant prelude to seriously hurting the will of the leaders of the North and South seeking to take the step toward rebuilding trust again and further clouding the path lying ahead for inter-Korean relations.”

Although U.S.-North Korean talks about the country’s secretive nuclear and ballistic missile programs have been at a standstill since President Biden took office, Seoul and Pyongyang revealed last week that they had agreed to restore a long-inactive hot line designed to minimize tensions on the heavily armed, divided peninsula.

It also was learned that Mr. Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a longtime supporter of engagement with the North, had exchanged letters since the spring on possible ways to improve ties.

“Our government and military will closely watch whether South Korea will carry out their hostile war exercise once again or make a bold decision,” Ms. Kim added, according to a report in the South Korean Yonhap news service. “Hope or despair? The decision is not upon us.”

The annual U.S.-South Korean military drills became a major political football during the Trump administration. Former President Donald Trump suspended them as he used unprecedented personal diplomacy in pursuit of an elusive personal denuclearization deal with Mr. Kim.

Mr. Trump called the drills provocative and expensive, though U.S. military leaders warned that the lack of training could hurt readiness for the 28,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea to defend against an attack from the North.

North Korea has long condemned the annual drills, insisting they were in face a rehearsal for a potential invasion of the North.

The Pentagon and South Korean military officials have been gauging how large the military exercises should be this year. A high-ranking official in the government’s Ministry of Unification suggested Friday the U.S. military exercises should be postponed, partly due to rising COVID-19 concerns but also as a means to prevent a bigger blow-up with the North.

“We think this is the right time to fully engage with North Korea through cooperation between South Korea and the United States,” the unnamed official told the Korea Times.

But conservatives who have long been critical of Mr. Moon’s accommodationist approach to the North were putting pressure on the government to proceed, warning South Korea’s defenses are beginning to suffer from the lack of real-life training.

“The [South Korea]-U.S. joint exercises have already been conducted with just command post training using simulations without the actual mobilization of troops, and even this was not conducted properly in the first half of last year,” said Rep. Hwangbo Seung-hee, a spokeswoman of the main opposition People Power Party (PPP), told the Korea Times Sunday.

“With such a cancellation of military exercises, it has become difficult for the troops to maintain actual combat capability while the verification of the South Korean military’s capabilities to lead joint operations has also become difficult,” Ms. Hwangbo said.

North Korea‘s warning on the exercises also comes amid growing signs of hardship within the Communist regime. The official North Korea daily Rodong Sinmun reported last week that Mr. Kim warned in a speech to a group of military veterans that the country is facing a “crisis similar to a war” due to the health and economic strains brought on by the global coronavirus pandemic.

“We are faced with difficulties and hardship caused by the unprecedented global health crisis and prolonged lockdown no less challenging than how it was during the war,” he said.

• David R. Sands can be reached at dsands@washingtontimes.com.

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