North Korea says nuclear talks at risk if U.S.-South Korea exercises go ahead

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un stand at the demarcation line in the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, in Panmunjom, South Korea, June 30, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un stand at the demarcation line in the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, in Panmunjom, South Korea, June 30, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – The United States looks set to break a promise not to hold military exercises with South Korea, putting talks aimed at getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons at risk, the North Korean Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday.

The United States’ pattern of “unilaterally reneging on its commitments” is leading Pyongyang to reconsider its own commitments to discontinue tests of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the ministry said in a pair of statements released through state news agency KCNA.

U.S. President Donald Trump revitalized efforts to persuade the North to give up its nuclear weapons last month when he arranged a spur-of-the-moment meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on the border between the two Koreas.

Trump said they had agreed to resume so-called working-level talks, stalled since their second summit in February collapsed. The negotiations are expected in coming weeks.

But a North Korean foreign ministry spokesman cast doubt on that, saying the United States and South Korea were pressing ahead with exercises called Dong Maeng this summer, which he called a “rehearsal of war”.

“We will formulate our decision on the opening of the DPRK-U.S. working-level talks, while keeping watch over the U.S. move hereafter,” the spokesman said, using the initials of North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The exercises are expected in August.

North Korea has for years denounced military exercises between the United States and South Korea, but in recent months has increased its criticism as talks with Washington and Seoul stalled.

“It is crystal clear that it is an actual drill and a rehearsal of war aimed at militarily occupying our Republic by surprise attack,” the North Korean spokesman said in a separate statement, adding that Trump had reaffirmed at last month’s meeting with Kim that the exercises would be halted.

Trump, in his first meeting with Kim in Singapore in June last year, said he would stop exercises after the two leaders agreed to work towards the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and to improve ties.

While the main annual South Korean-U.S. exercises have been stopped, they still hold smaller drills.

“Readiness remains the number one priority for USFK,” said Jacqueline Leeker, a spokeswoman for U.S. Forces Korea (USFK). “As a matter of standard operating procedure, and in order to preserve space for diplomacy to work, we do not discuss any planned training or exercises publicly.”

She said U.S. and South Korean troops continued to train together but had adjusted the size, scope, number and timing of exercises in order to “harmonize” training programs with diplomatic efforts.

An official at South Korea’s ministry of defense said it did not have immediate comment, but Seoul officials have previously said the drills are defensive in nature.

Since the Singapore summit, North Korea has not tested any nuclear weapons or intercontinental ballistic missiles, though it tested new short-range missiles in May.

The United States’ decision to forge ahead with drills less than a month after Trump and Kim last met is “clearly a breach” of the two leaders’ agreements made in Singapore last year, and is an “an undisguised pressure” on North Korea, the foreign ministry spokesman said.

“With the U.S. unilaterally reneging on its commitments, we are gradually losing our justifications to follow through on the commitments we made with the U.S. as well,” he said.

A North Korean nuclear envoy who steered the talks ahead of the failed February summit is alive, a South Korean lawmaker said on Tuesday, contradicting a South Korean news report that he had been executed.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin. Additional reporting by Josh Smith.; Editing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie)

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