US, S Korea begin low-key army drills amid diplomatic thaw

SEOUL: The United States and South Korea kicked off a low-key joint military drill on Sunday as a diplomatic thaw over North Korea gathered pace.
Also on Sunday, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un and his wife attended the first concert in Pyongyang for more than a decade by South Korean performers, Seoul’s Yonhap news agency reported. The agency cited the South’s culture ministry as its source.
The visit to the North’s capital was the latest gesture of reconciliation before a scheduled summit on April 27.
Tensions on the flashpoint peninsula have showed signs of easing in recent months after the isolated, nuclear-armed North proposed summits with the South and their “imperialist enemy” the US.
The annual Foal Eagle drill — a series of field training exercises involving some 11,500 American and 290,000 South Korean troops — began early on Sunday, Seoul’s defence ministry spokesman said.
The drill — which was delayed to avoid clashing with February’s Winter Olympics in the South — will be held for a month in April, about half the time it usually lasts.
This year’s drills feature fewer strategic weapons like a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, Seoul army said earlier. The deployment of such powerful weapons at past drills has frequently drawn an angry response from the North.
The two allies are also set to stage the annual Key Resolve drill — a tabletop exercise using mainly computer-based simulations — for the usual duration of two weeks beginning late in April.
Pyongyang, which habitually slams the joint army drills between the South and the US as a rehearsal for invasion, has remained relatively quiet on the issue in recent weeks.
The Foal Eagle drill started the same day as a historic concert by South Korean pop stars in Pyongyang, which was staged late on Sunday as a peace gesture ahead of this month’s inter-Korea summit.
Eleven South Korean acts — including popular K-pop girlband Red Velvet — were performing in the North Korean capital — the first such concert for more than a decade.
The flurry of reconciliatory moves comes after the Pyeongchang Winter Games, which the North used to mount a charm offensive, sending athletes, cheerleaders and even leader Kim Jong-Un’s powerful sister as a delegate.
Kim, who last week met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing on his first overseas trip as leader, also met Olympics chief Thomas Bach in Pyongyang on Saturday, thanking him for helping to bring about a “dramatic thawing” of tensions on the peninsula.