S. Korea, U.S. should adjust joint military drills for diplomacy: think tank

SEOUL-- South Korea and the United States should adjust their joint military exercises to keep nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang alive, a state-run think tank said Thursday, stressing that the upcoming few months will be crucial in keeping the situation under control.

The Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul made the case one day after Pyongyang's state media reported that leader Kim Jong-un has warned of "shocking actual action" and a "new strategic weapon" against the U.S.

Convening a four-day plenary session of the ruling Workers' Party through Tuesday, Kim said he sees no reason to stick to his self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests, accusing the U.S. of abusing the denuclearization talks for its own political interests.

"January and February will be a critical moment," the institute said in a report, adding that South Korea and the U.S. need to send an active and bold message to North Korea and take "declamatory measures," such as adjusting joint military exercises.

During the party meeting, Kim lashed out at the U.S. for conducting joint military exercises with the South despite Pyongyang's measures to build confidence with Washington, such as dismantling its nuclear testing site and suspending nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests.

Experts said North Korea could carry out a major provocation in March when South Korea and the U.S. usually conduct one of their largest annual joint exercises. The North has denounced the drills as an invasion rehearsal.

"Looking at the past patterns, the North Korea-U.S. and inter-Korean relations could return to a mechanism of criticism, confrontation and military tensions," the institute said. "Adjustment of the allies' joint exercise is a key to keep the situation under control."

The think tank also said the North doesn't appear to have taken any definite path yet and that its future course of action will likely depend on the response from the U.S.

"North Korea will likely decide its next step after taking into consideration various factors, including ... the Trump administration's political situation and the 'arbitration' efforts by China and Russia," it said.

Meanwhile, former U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton said Wednesday the allies should fully reinstate their canceled or downsized military exercises to respond to the North's latest threat.

Bolton left the Trump administration in September following multiple policy clashes with the U.S. president and has turned into a vocal critic of U.S. President Donald Trump's diplomatic engagement with the North Korean regime.

South Korea has maintained that the allies have adjusted the combined exercises in order to support diplomatic efforts for denuclearization. The defense ministry said Thursday that such a stance remains unchanged.

Yet asked about any plan to resume their springtime exercise, ministry spokesperson Choi Hyun-soo said she has "nothing to comment on the issue as of now," adding that details will be decided "in consideration of how things go."

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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