South Korean President Moon Jae-In / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Nicolas ASFOURI AND NICOLAS ASFOURI
South Korean President Moon Jae-In has proposed delaying annual joint military exercises with the US in an attempt to ease tensions with the nuclear-armed North during next year’s Winter Olympics.
Moon’s comments were the first confirmation that Seoul is seeking to postpone the annual Key Resolve and Foal Eagle drills, which usually start in late February or early March and run until the end of April.
South Korea will host the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang from February 9-25 next year, with the Paralympics scheduled to begin on March 9.
But the venue is just 80 kilometres (50 miles) south of the tense border with North Korea, and tensions tend to rise during the drills, which Pyongyang condemns as rehearsals for invasion.
Moon told US television channel NBC the two allies were considering postponing the exercises.
“I have made such a proposal to the US and the US is now reviewing it,” he said on his way to Pyeongchang to promote the Games.
But it would depend on the North’s actions, he added.
“If North Korea stops its provocations leading up to the Pyeongchang Olympics, it will greatly help in holding a safe Olympics,” he said. “Also, it will help in creating conducive atmosphere towards inter-Korean as well as US-North Korean dialogue.”
Key Resolve and Foal Eagle are two of the allies’ biggest joint drills, involving tens of thousands of troops. Pyongyang often responds to them with new provocations, such as missile launches, as it accelerates the weapons programmes that have seen it subjected to multiple sets of UN sanctions.
China and Russia have both touted a “freeze for freeze” proposal, under which the North would suspend missile and nuclear tests while the US and South suspend joint exercises.
But Washington and Seoul have explicitly rejected the concept and Pyongyang always says it will not stop pursuing its weapons ambitions.
Analysts differed on Moon’s suggestion.
Moon Seong-Mook, senior researcher at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy, said Pyongyang had long demanded the drills’ “total suspension” rather than a delay.
The president’s proposal would only raise concern in Washington about Seoul’s resolve rather than persuading the North to respond positively.
“If we delay the drills for the Pyeongchang Olympics, I’m afraid it would help justify the North’s claim that they were indeed the source of tension,” he added.
But Kim Yeol-Su, senior researcher at the Korea Institute for Military Affairs, said the offer could act as “a small step to create new momentum for opening dialogue”.
“There’s a certain level of self-contradiction in holding an event largely promoted as a peaceful global event while tens of thousands of soldiers are staging war games on the sidelines,” he said.
Games organisers and Seoul are both keen for the North to take part in what they have proclaimed as a “peace Olympics”.
Pyongyang has so far given no indication whether it will send its athletes — two of its figure skaters have qualified — to Pyeongchang.
Last month the South’s Unification Minister Cho Myoung-Gyon warned the North could deliver a “fatal blow” to the Olympics if it launches a missile or stages another provocation before the event.
But President Moon said: “Foreign tourists coming for the Pyeongchang Winter Games won’t need to worry about security. I don’t think North Korea will do anything that may undermine the Olympics.
“Everything is now in place and I hope these Olympics will serve as an opportunity to help ease tension with the North,” he added.
An official at the presidential Blue House said Moon’s suggestion for the drills was “limited to holding the Olympic Games peacefully”, telling the Yonhap news agency: “The delay would be limited to the duration of the Olympic Games, including the Paralympic Games.”
But conservative opposition parties reacted angrily, saying delaying the drills would weaken the country’s defence.
“This amateurish government is risking national security and rattling the South Korea-US alliance,” said a spokeswoman for the main opposition Liberty Korea party.
Yoo Seung-Min, the leader of the Bareun Party, a splinter opposition group, said security should take precedence over the Olympics.