US, South Korea scale back military drill

WASHINGTON/SEOUL: The United States and South Korea have scaled down an annual joint military exercise scheduled for the spring of 2019 to facilitate nuclear talks with North Korea, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis has said.
In the latest reconciliation gesture between the neighbours, North and South Korea have connected a road across their shared border for the first time in 14 years, Seoul’s defence ministry said on Thursday even as the UN atomic watchdog indicated that North Korea appears to be still expanding operations at its main nuclear site.
“Foal Eagle is being reorganised a bit to keep it at a level that will not be harmful to diplomacy,” Mattis said, adding that it would be “reduced in scope.”
Foal Eagle is the biggest of the regular joint exercises held by the allies, and has always infuriated Pyongyang, which condemned it as preparations for invasion.
But the drill — one of the world’s largest field exercises involving 200,000 South Korean and some 30,000 US soldiers — was delayed and scaled down last year as diplomatic detente took hold on the peninsula.
And following a historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore in June, US President Donald Trump announced that the US would stop holding joint exercises with the South, calling them expensive and “very provocative”.
Since then the two allies have suspended most of their major joint exercises including the Ulchi Freedom Guardian in August and Vigilant Ace, slated for next month.
But more recently progress in talks with the North has stalled, with the US pushing to maintain sanctions against it until its “final, fully verified denuclearisation” and Pyongyang condemning US demands as “gangster-like.”
Washington stations 28,500 troops in the South to defend it from its nuclear-armed neighbour, which invaded in 1950.
North and South Korea have connected a road across their shared border for the first time in 14 years. The dirt road, which is wholly within the Demilitarized Zone that divides the peninsula, will be used for joint operations next year to recover remains from the 1950-53 Korean War.
The 12-metre-wide construction of the route in Cheorwon, near the mid-point of the DMZ, is one of several steps agreed at the Pyongyang summit between the South’s President Moon Jae-in and the North’s leader Kim Jong Un in September.
The neighbours also pledged to remove bunkers and weapons from the border truce village of Panmunjom.
Pictures handed out by Seoul’s defence ministry on Thursday showed a South Korean soldier and a North Korean counterpart taking part in the “recent” roadworks holding their hands out towards each other, with their colleagues watching.
“It is historically significant for the North and the South to open a new passage and jointly engage in operations to recover remains of war dead at the place which saw the worst battles during the war,” the ministry said.
Despite its name the area around the DMZ is one of the most fortified places on earth, replete with minefields and barbed-wire fences.
Meanwhile, the UN atomic watchdog indicated that North Korea appears to be still expanding operations at its main nuclear site.
The statement by the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency is a further sign that North Korea is pressing ahead with its atomic activities despite pressure from the United States for it to scrap its nuclear weapons programme.
At a leaders’ summit in June both sides pledged to work towards the complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.
Since then, few concrete steps have been made towards the full and irreversible dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear arms programme that Washington has called for.
At Yongbyon, North Korea’s main nuclear facility which is widely believed to have provided fissile material for its bombs, components appear to have been brought into a light-water reactor being built there, IAEA chief Yukiya Amano said.
“At the light water reactor, the agency also observed activities consistent with the fabrication of reactor components and the possible transfer of these components into the reactor building,” Amano said in a statement to the IAEA’s Board of Governors, reporting on the period since August.
 — AFP/Reuters